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State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday, July 31, 2020, during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

State senators heard testimony Friday on a bill aimed at preventing a court logjam by creating a mediation-focused program for evictions.

SB1 was the first piece of legislation introduced in that house during the special session, which started Friday. The bill comes exactly a month ahead of the planned Sept. 1 lifting of an eviction moratorium.

"Our question is what happens then?” Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty said while presenting the bill on behalf of the Access to Justice Commission, which he co-chairs. “And, in particular, will the court system be able to meet a projected significant increase in eviction cases?”

Separate estimates from the treasurer’s office and Guinn Center for Policy Priorities indicate that anywhere from 135,000 to 142,000 households statewide could be affected by evictions in the coming months. If those estimates prove accurate, the courts could see three times as many eviction-related cases as they normally do in an entire year, Hardesty said. 

SB1 would attempt to alleviate some of that burden by halting eviction proceedings for no more than 30 days and allowing mediation to occur through an alternative dispute resolution program. Hardesty said the courts hope to create a process that allows tenants, landlords and the mediator to convene by phone or video conference call, thus keeping people out of the courthouse amid the pandemic. If the dispute cannot be resolved during mediation, a court hearing would be set.

Republican Sen. Keith Pickard asked why the courts want to enact this program through legislation.

Hardesty said the judicial system fears people would challenge the court’s authority to stay an eviction proceeding, potentially leading to lawsuits. Additionally, the Supreme Court justice said creating the program through legislation gives the public more transparency.

“We don't need any more lawsuits,” he said. “We're trying to reduce them.”

The bill drew broad support from organizations such as the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and the ACLU of Nevada.

“Right now, we are facing a real potential for a surge in homelessness that we cannot afford,” said Emily Paulsen, executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “Every opportunity that we can take to connect a family to available resources like rental assistance is an opportunity that we should take.”

But Edward Kania, president of Southern Nevada Eviction Services, testified against the bill, saying it stands to further harm landlords whose court access already has been delayed for months.

“This proposal will delay that access further,” he said. “Landlords have been economically suffering during the past six months, despite the fact that they have been providing essential services during that whole time. They simply cannot continue to provide free housing.”

The bill passed out of the Senate Committee of the Whole on Friday afternoon after a voice vote. It next heads to the full Senate.

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