(Fred Weinberg/The Penny Press) – It isn’t often that the United States Supreme Court votes unanimously on any issue of controversy.
So when the Supremes—all of them, even the ones we call “liberal” (except Elena Kagen who sat this case out)—told the Nevada Supreme Court last week that a Nevada law that requires public officials to not vote on an issue where a family member, business associate or “substantially similar” relation has a private interest in that vote is, indeed, valid, it means two things.
First is that in most places in the United States, this is not a matter of controversy.
Because in most places in the United States, people understand what the Eighth Commandment in the Bible, “Thou shalt not steal,” actually means.
Second is that here in Nevada, we depend on our Supreme Court to provide tortured legal interpretations as a way of wiring around common sense—and, apparently, the Eighth Commandment.
This version of the Nevada Supremes has come a long way from the 2003 version, which we regularly referred to as “black-robed rubes” after they decided that a vote of the people limiting new taxes and tax increases to being approved by a supermajority of the legislature or a vote of the people was invalid when the Governor and a bunch of influential Democrats wanted to raise taxes and increase spending anyway.
Those bozos on the court are gone and this group is substantially more thoughtful. Although the group of influential Democrats wanting to raise taxes and spend more in Nevada is largely the same.
But we still seem to have this attitude in Nevada that a little stealing is OK, until a Federal Grand Jury says it’s not.
This time, what happened is that a Sparks city councilman, back in 2006, voted for a casino project despite the fact that his campaign manager also was a paid consultant to the project.
His attitude was and is: Gee, if I have any volunteer in my campaign connected to a project, I would have to recuse myself.
The Nevada Supremes said that voting was an exercise of free speech and therefore could not be interfered with by mere ethics. Talk about tortured logic. This went well beyond waterboarding.
A unanimous Supreme Court spanked the Nevada court by pointing out that voting is an act, not speech.
“The answer,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the Court, “is that a legislator’s vote is the commitment of his apportioned share of the legislature’s power to the passage or defeat of a particular proposal. The legislative power thus committed is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people; the legislator has no personal right to it.”
Put in terms that even a Sparks City Councilman should be able to understand, it’s not your vote, it’s not your seat, it’s not your fiefdom, Councilman Pinhead. Everything you do as an elected public official you do because your constituents put you there to do it.
And in this particular case, it wasn’t some campaign “volunteer” who was involved but rather his campaign manager who, in the course of most political campaigns, becomes a close business associate.
If that Nevada ethics law is taken literally, there are a whole lot of members of the State Legislature who are public employees, both current and retired, who should have to recuse themselves on a lot of votes.
It is the most blatant conflict of interest we have ever seen.
How can a university professor vote on the higher education budget?
How can a retired public school administrator vote on the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System?
How can a Department of Transportation employee vote on the highway bill?
What passes for intelligentsia in Nevada would say that these people are very important to the process because they actually know what they are voting on.
They sure do. They’re voting on their own deals. And filling their own checking accounts with our money.
When I lived in Las Vegas and I once said on the air that four members of the Clark County Commission class of 1999 were crooks and needed to go to prison, they told me, “Hey, it’s Vegas, baby!
“You just don’t understand how things work around here.”
When all four of those clowns were subsequently convicted of taking bribes and put in prison, those same people who told me that were scratching their heads and wondering what happened.
After all, they only stole a little, right?
That’s the mindset that encourages the tortured legal reasoning in the Nevada Supreme Court opinion, which equated a legislative vote with free speech.
Much of the rest of the country already understands that graft is graft, however you disguise it.
What bothers me is that if the Nevada Supreme Court is willing to twist the First Amendment into a pretzel to suit its purposes, what else have they done that we don’t know about?
How many skeletons are hidden in the many cases they decide which might benefit an individual or company?
Perhaps we ought to assign a group of investigative reporters to look at that question in light of this opinion.