What a difference a single word makes.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) legal arm, the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), this week filed notice with the Nevada Supreme Court that it is appealing the decision of a Carson City judge dismissing its lawsuit against a state senator for violating the state Constitution’s Separation of Powers Clause.
“Defying the clear language of the Nevada constitution, Nevada Supreme Court precedent, and a 2004 Attorney General Advisory Opinion by then-attorney-general Governor Brian Sandoval, Judge (James) Russell relied upon a non-binding opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau in his ruling from the bench — but we believe the actual words of the state constitution should matter more,” declared CJCL Director Joseph Becker in an email press release.
CJCL sued state Sen. Heidi Gansert because she also is an employee of UNR.
The Constitution says any person serving in one branch of government may not perform “any function” of another branch. But the Legislature’s lawyers, the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB), back in 2004 penned a non-binding opinion that stated a person my serve in the Legislature if they do not exercise “any sovereign functions” in another branch.
The word sovereign, whatever definition one may ascertain, is nowhere to be found the Separation of Powers Clause.
But apparently the judge accepted the LCB’s rewrite over the original as law.
“We believe the plain language of the constitution should take precedent over a non-binding LCB opinion, or the preferences of the ruling class,” commented Becker. “And we look forward to the appeals process finally giving further legal clarity on the issue.”
This fight has been going on for years.
There have been years in which nearly half the lawmakers in Carson City were either government employees or the spouses of government employees. In some years every Senate and Assembly leadership post was held by a public employee. Currently nearly a dozen lawmakers hold down state or local government jobs.
In 2004 then-Secretary of State Dean Heller asked the Supreme Court to remedy this skirting of the Constitution. Heller asked the court to find that service in the Legislature by unidentified executive branch employees violates the concept of separation of powers and to direct the Legislature to enforce the Separation of Powers Clause.
But the court ruled that doing so would violate — wait for it — the Separation of Powers Clause, because the Constitution also states that the Senate and Assembly are to determine the qualifications of their members, thus the judicial branch telling the legislative branch who its members may be violates the Separation of Powers Clause. Got it?
Never mind that the reason for separation of powers is not to allow each branch to stand totally autonomous and unanswerable to anyone, but to provide checks and balances when one branch runs amok.
But the court did allow that “declaratory relief could be sought by someone with a ‘legally protectible interest,’ such as a person seeking the executive branch position held by the legislator.”
Under that guidance, the CJCL first sued state Sen. Mo Denis on behalf of a person who wanted Denis’ $56,000-a-year job at the Public Utilities Commission. A judge declared the case moot when Denis resigned his PUC job.
NPRI’s lawyers came back with a similar suit against state Gansert on behalf of a person who wants her public relations job at the University of Nevada, Reno — a job that yields $210,000 a year in pay and benefits.
Now that the district court judge has ruled that the Separation of Powers Clause is meaningless, it is back to the Supreme Court.
In a 1967 case, the Nevada Supreme Court flatly stated, “The division of powers is probably the most important single principle of government declaring and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.”