Nevada Supreme Court to decide Roethlisberger trial site
Friday, May 13, 2011
By Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All seven members of the Nevada Supreme Court will consider the change-of-venue request in the lawsuit accusing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault in a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008.
In an order handed down in Carson City this week, Chief Justice Michael L. Douglas said the full court will determine whether the case will be tried in Reno, where Mr. Roethlisberger's accuser filed suit, or in Lake Tahoe, where she says the incident occurred.
Justice Douglas also said no oral arguments will be scheduled, meaning the justices will base their ruling on the documents attorneys have submitted to the court.
The order, which includes no timetable for a decision, comes 20 months after a district judge in Reno denied a change-of-venue request from Mr. Roethlisberger's attorneys. The attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case has been in limbo ever since.
A 33-year-old woman filed suit against the Steelers quarterback in August 2009, claiming he assaulted her in July 2008 while staying at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, where she was a VIP hostess. The Post-Gazette does not name accusers in sexual assault cases.
The suit also named eight Harrah's employees whom she accused of ignoring or hindering her attempts to have Mr. Roethlisberger held accountable.
Mr. Roethlisberger has denied sexually assaulting the woman, and his attorneys are seeking to have the matter tried in Douglas County, home of Lake Tahoe, where the incident is said to have occurred and where the Harrah's employees live and work.
Calvin R.X. Dunlap, the Reno-based attorney for the woman, said the venue in Reno, Washoe County, was appropriate because one of the defendants -- an executive of Harrah's -- has a second residence there.
Washoe District Judge Brent Adams denied the change of venue in September 2009, saying the Reno court had jurisdiction and that there was no reason to believe Mr. Roethlisberger and the others could not get a fair trial there.
Mr. Dunlap said this week's order means the matter will not be heard by a three-judge panel of Supreme Court justices, standard practice for many civil cases appealed to the Nevada high court.
"It shows that somebody knows this case exists and there has been some attention given to it," Mr. Dunlap said. "But what that means, I couldn't guess."
Mr. Roethlisberger's attorney, Atlanta-based William David Cornwell Sr., could not be reached to comment.
Robert Eisenberg, a Reno-based appellate lawyer who is not involved in the case, said the decision to have the full court settle the issue likely was the result of "an internal review process" that began with a recommendation from an attorney on the court's staff or an attorney in the clerk's office.
"Usually, if it goes to the full court, it means the justices see the case as having significance relating to Nevada law," said Mr. Eisenberg, who has been practicing law in Nevada since 1979 and worked on the high court's legal staff for six years in the early 1980s. "I don't think the fact that it involves a celebrity or that the case has generated some publicity would be a factor in the court's decision."
Long waits aren't unusual for the Nevada Supreme Court, Mr. Eisenberg said.
"[This case] has gone on longer than average, but it's not shocking to me," he said. "The court has a huge case load. We don't have an intermediate appellate court [in Nevada], so everything [that is appealed] goes from the trial court to the Supreme Court. Sometimes it just takes them a long time to get to something."
The next step, Mr. Eisenberg said, probably will be a conference in which the justices will discuss the case, make a decision, then assign it to one of the justices to write the opinion.
Afterward, the opinion will be circulated among the other justices, who will indicate whether they agree with it. If anyone disagrees, that justice could write a dissent.
The fact that the court will not hear oral arguments, Mr. Eisenberg said, "tells me that the [briefs] are pretty clear, well-developed, thorough, and the court didn't see any reason to have the lawyers stand in front of them and argue. The justices apparently believe the papers are enough, which tells me they probably did a pretty good job on both sides."
The civil case isn't the only legal cloud that has been hanging over Mr. Roethlisberger. Last year, a 20-year-old college student accused him of assaulting her in a bathroom in Milledgeville, Ga., but the district attorney there said he could not pursue charges because he could not prove that a crime had been committed.
Despite his never having been charged with a crime, Mr. Roethlisberger was suspended for four games at the start of last season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said the quarterback's conduct did not meet "the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."
Mr. Roethlisberger, 29, took part in behavioral therapy, after which teammates and Steelers management said they noticed a change in his attitude. He is engaged to be married