(Elizabeth Crum/Nevada News Bureau) – In a decision that surprised many — including the Nevada Democratic Party — a district judge last Thursday overruled Secretary of State Ross Miller’s decision to permit any qualified candidate to run in a “free-for-all” in the U.S. House race to fill Dean Heller’s recently vacated seat.
According to Miller’s interpretation of the law, “qualified” would have meant collecting 100 signatures and filing (fee free) for candidacy. However, Judge James Todd Russell last week enjoined Miller from moving ahead with ballot preparation and gave the political parties until June 30 to nominate a candidate.
Russell’s written decision, issued [on May 23], called the Nevada statutes “ambiguous” and said the GOP “would suffer irreparable harm” in a free-for-all election. The decision also said Miller relied on “a single sentence” in special election law and produced “an unreasonable and absurd result” which results in “unfair treatment.”
Russell said on Friday he based his decision on the reading of two Nevada statutes that govern special and regular elections. He said they were confusing when taken as a whole and added that the Legislature should clarify the law in order to avoid future conflicts.
The 2003 special election law (passed after 9/11 to address sudden House vacancies) says there should be no primary election, but that candidates must be nominated before filing a declaration of candidacy. However, a separate statute says the major and minor parties’ central or executive committees should nominate candidates whenever a vacancy exists.
In his comments in open court Friday, Russell said the secretary of state was “picking and choosing” portions of the law when he made his decision to allow what Miller called a “ballot royale.” Russell also said it seemed unfair to have different rules for major and minor parties (the secretary of state had said minor parties could nominate only one candidate each).
Democratic attorneys argued that Miller has the authority to set election rules and that he should be given the latitude to interpret statutes.
An appeal by Miller is expected to be filed with the Nevada Supreme Court.
The decision virtually guarantees the GOP will hold the 2nd Congressional District because it prevents a crowded Republican field and subsequent splintered vote, which would have benefitted a strong Democratic candidate (hello, Kate Marshall).
Interestingly enough, Dean Heller, whose empty House seat is now at the center of the controversy, was the Secretary of State when the 2003 legislation was passed. He should have set the rules for a special election but because he never did so, Nevada finds itself headed for a state supreme court hearing.
The GOP central committee meeting and election is currently scheduled for June 18 in Sparks, NV.
Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei has yet to step down from his post, though he announced his candidacy and is a contender for the party’s nomination.
State Senator and former U.S. attorney for Nevada Greg Brower is Amodei’s primary competition for the GOP central committee vote. Brower has been active and aggressive in recent days with the launch of his campaign website along with email and social media messages to the Republican base and central committee members.
Several Democrats are expected to compete for the nomination to fill the House vacancy including State Treasurer Kate Marshall, Nancy Price and Jill Derby.
Here is the District Court’s decision, issued Thursday from the bench. It is only 12 pages and is fairly straightforward: