Newspaper column: What a difference a single word makes

Though the Nevada Constitution clearly states that any person serving in one branch of government may not perform “any function” of another branch, the Legislature’s lawyers, the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB), in 2002 penned a non-binding opinion that stated a person may serve in the Legislature if they do not exercise “any sovereign functions” in another branch.

The definition of the adjective sovereign is: “possessing supreme or ultimate power,” thus the LCB adulteration of the Constitution emasculates the plain language of the Separation of Powers Clause.

The Nevada Supreme Court will have the opportunity to clear up this matter.

State Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-J pix)

The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) legal arm, the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), this past week filed notice with the state high court that it is appealing the decision of a Carson City judge dismissing its lawsuit against a state senator for violating the 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.

In that 2004 opinion, Sandoval noted that in the 1957 Supreme Court case cited by the LCB as the basis for its opinion, the court never got to the point of ruling on the Separation of Powers Clause and dismissed it on other grounds.

CJCL sued state Sen. Heidi Gansert because she also is an employee of the University of Nevada, Reno.

“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 10 lawmakers hold down state or local government jobs. As such, despite clear conflicts of interest, the lawmakers can vote themselves raises and hand out largesse to their employers — as Gansert did in this past session by voting for 2 percent raises for state employees and a capital expenditure budget that included more than $40 million for a new engineering building at UNR.

In 2004 then-Secretary of State Dean Heller asked the Supreme Court to remedy this skirting of the Constitution, but the court ruled that the Constitution gives lawmakers the power 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.

Joseph Becker

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 Gansert on behalf of a person who wants her public relations job at UNR — 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.

The court should heed the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a dissenting opinion from 1926, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787, not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”

Or they could turn to a 1967 Nevada Supreme Court opinion that flatly stated, “The division of powers is probably the most important single principle of government declaring and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.”

The words of the state Constitution should not be made meaningless by adding a word plucked out of thin air.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

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Separation of Powers Clause interpretation going to state Supreme Court … again

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.”

That was 50 years ago.

 

Newspaper column: Separation of Powers Clause being ignored

Frankly, it sounds like a self-contradictory argument. Or circuitous at best.

Until the 1960s, it was largely agreed that public employees could not also serve in the Nevada Legislature.

This was because the Separation of Powers Clause in the state Constitution stated that no one who exercised power in one branch of state government — legislative, executive or judicial — could “exercise any functions” in another branch, no matter how menial.

But along the way a couple of non-binding legal opinions found that it was OK for someone to exercise legislative powers so long as that person did not exercise “powers” — rather than the all-inclusive “any functions” — in another branch.

With the flood gates open, 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.

Recognizing the growing problem, 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.”

A couple of years ago the libertarian-leaning think tank, Nevada Policy Research institute, did just that. It 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 has come back with a similar suit against state Sen. Heidi 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.

This past week Carson City Judge James Russell ruled from the bench against the NPRI suit.

NPRI’s attorney, Joseph Becker said in a press release, “Essentially, we were told that in order to sue Senator Gansert for a constitutional violation, the Plaintiff must file similar suits against every other potential violator,” which is precisely what the Supreme Court said Heller could not do.

The judge has two weeks to put his ruling in writing, after which Becker said NPRI and its client will decide what to do next.

From what the judge said it court, Becker said it appeared Russell ignored the legal arguments but chose to embrace a non-binding opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which is the Legislature’s lawyers, who have a history of telling lawmakers what they want to hear.

“Apparently the non-binding LCB opinion held more weight with Judge Russell than the actual text of the Nevada constitution or the Nevada Supreme Court opinions, which interpreted that constitutional provision in Plaintiff’s favor,” Becker said.

That LCB opinion said “the separation-of-powers provision in the state constitution does not prohibit a member of the Legislature, during his term, from occupying a position of public employment in another department of state government, because a person in a position of public employment does not exercise any sovereign functions appertaining to another department of the state government.”

The word “sovereign” is not in the Constitution. It just magically appeared.

It is hard to win when the rules keep changing in the middle of the game.

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.”

That was 50 years ago. Yet, while lawyers and judges dither, the flouting of the concise words of the state Constitution continues, resulting in a farce and a canard.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Judge holds that lawmakers can hold down government jobs at the same time

A Carson City judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by the Nevada Policy Research Institute in an effort to force compliance with the Separation of Powers Clause of the Nevada Constitution.

In order to establish standing as a party, NPRI sued state Sen. Heidi Gansert on behalf of a client, Doug French, who wanted to seek her job as executive director of external relations at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Article 3 of the Nevada Constitution states: “The powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three separate departments, — the Legislative, — the Executive and the Judicial; and no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution.”

Judge James Russell tossed the suit from the bench and has two weeks to issue a written ruling explaining how on earth a person exercising the powers of the Legislature can also exercise any functions of the executive branch.

State Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-J pix)

NPRI attorney told The Nevada Independent the group will wait for the judge’s written ruling before deciding what step to take next.

This is the second time NPRI has sued to try to get lawmakers to follow the plain language of the Constitution. Earlier it sued state Sen. Mo Denis because he also was an employee of the state Public Utilities Commission, and had been for 17 years. Denis immediately resigned from his $56,000-a-year state job in order to maintain his part-time $10,000-every-other-year state senator post, and a judge declared the lawsuit moot, despite strong arguments from NPRI that there is a public-interest exception to mootness.

Gansert’s university job yields $210,000 a year in pay and benefits.

There are nearly a dozen current lawmakers who also hold jobs in state or local government. Since Nevada operates under the Dillon Rule, which limits the power of local governments to those expressly granted by the Legislature, local governments are basically subsidiaries of the state. Arguably employees of local governments are serving in the executive branch of state government, and also would be barred from serving as a lawmaker under the Constitution.

When he filed suit against Gansert, Becker issued a statement saying, “Gansert’s continued employment in the state’s executive branch, as Executive Director of External Relations for the University of Nevada, Reno, puts her in direct violation of Nevada’s Separation of Powers clause, now that she is also serving in the state senate. As a senator, she can simply not continue her employment in the executive branch without violating this clearly worded constitutional provision.”

In a counter statement Gansert called the suit meritless and said, “Nevada has an unambiguous precedent of legislators taking time off from their jobs in higher education to serve the people of the state.”

That unambiguous precedent only dates from 1964, as newspaper columnist Vin Suprynowicz pointed out in a 2011 column. Suprynowicz said even school janitors were not allowed to sit in the Legislature. This was chipped away by a couple of attorney general rulings until in 1971 Attorney General Bob List opened the flood gates. List held that a person could “exercise powers” as a legislator so long as he didn’t “exercise powers” in one of the other branches. Never mind that the constitutional criteria is “any function.”

Suprynowicz also related, “In 2004, Attorney General Brian Sandoval — now our governor — issued an opinion holding that state workers should not be allowed to sit in Carson City. But it has never been tested in the courts and is widely ignored.”

But the lawmakers’ lawyers at the Legislative Counsel Bureau issued a different opinion two years earlier and said “the separation- of-powers provision in the state constitution only prohibits a member of the Legislature, during his term, from holding a constitutional office or a nonconstitutional office in another department of state government, because a person who holds a constitutional or nonconstitutional office exercises sovereign functions appertaining to another department of the state government. However, it is also the opinion of this office that the separation-of-powers provision in the state constitution does not prohibit a member of the Legislature, during his term, from occupying a position of public employment in another department of state government, because a person in a position of public employment does not exercise any sovereign functions appertaining to another department of the state government.”

Nope, no conflict there, other than being able to hold life and death sway over the budget of one’s own boss.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1784: “All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. … An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”

 

Newspaper column: Why separation of powers must be enforced in Nevada

Assembly Bill 121 is Exhibit A in the case for finally enforcing the state constitutional mandate for separation of powers, such that each branch of government may provide checks and balances to prevent the abuse that results when power is concentrated in too few hands.

The bill — introduced in Carson City by Democratic Las Vegas Assemblyman Steve Yeager — would wipe out much of the progress made in 2015 in public employee collective bargaining reforms.

Yeager, who also happens to be a Clark County public employee, would erase a provision in the law that prohibits paying union officials from public coffers for time spent doing union business. It also negates a provision blocking pay increases after a union contract has expired and before a new one is inked. It further requires any new contract to be retroactive to the expiration date of the previous contract — greatly reducing incentives for union members to accept a lower offer.

State Sen. Heidi Gansert sits in the Legislature. (R-J pix)

State Sen. Heidi Gansert sits in the Legislature. (R-J pix)

The bill is redistributionism. Taking from the taxpayers to line the pockets of public employee union members.

Yeager is employed by the Clark County Public Defenders Office, whose union contract expires in June.

The state of Nevada operates under the Dillon Rule, which limits the power of local governments to those expressly granted by the Legislature, meaning local governments are basically subsidiaries of the state and employees of those local governments, such as Yeager, essentially are serving in the executive branch of state government.

Which brings us to Article 3 of the Nevada Constitution, which states: “The powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three separate departments, — the Legislative, — the Executive and the Judicial; and no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution.”

Therefore, Yeager, while currently serving in the Legislature, is also a member of the executive branch and, since he works in the court system, he is an employee of the judicial branch — a triple threat!

Such ignoring of explicit requirements of the state Constitution has been ongoing for decades and currently there are several lawmakers whose day jobs are with a local government.

In 2011, the libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute’s legal arm, the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, filed suit against state Sen. Mo Denis because he also was an employee of the state Public Utilities Commission, and had been for 17 years.

Denis immediately resigned from his $56,000-a-year state job in order to maintain his part-time $10,000-every-other-year state senator post, and a judge declared the lawsuit moot.

A week ago CJCL filed a similar suit against state Sen. Heidi Gansert, who holds a $210,000-a-year in pay and benefits public relations job with the University of Nevada, Reno.

 “Gansert’s continued employment in the state’s executive branch, as Executive Director of External Relations for the University of Nevada, Reno, puts her in direct violation of Nevada’s Separation of Powers clause, now that she is also serving in the state senate,” CJCL Director Joseph Becker said in a press release reporting on the litigation. “As a senator, she can simply not continue her employment in the executive branch without violating this clearly worded constitutional provision.”

In a statement Gansert called the suit meritless and said, “Nevada has an unambiguous precedent of legislators taking time off from their jobs in higher education to serve the people of the state.”

Of the unambiguous Separation of Powers clause, Becker said it was designed to preserve the independence and integrity of each branch, and having a legislator make decisions that might directly benefit employees of another branch creates a clear conflict of interest.

As witness AB121.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1784: “All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. … An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Gift Clause case is shunted by judge

A Carson City judge has dismissed on a technicality a lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional the governor’s so-called Catalyst Fund, which has doled out nearly $20 million in recent years to companies that promise to hire workers.

The suit was brought by Michael Little, owner of a company that converts recycled landscape trimmings into biomass, a renewable energy source. It claimed a $1.2 million handout to competitor SolarCity, which at the time installed solar panels on rooftop, violated the Gift Clause of the state Constitution, which prohibits the state donating or loaning money to any company. SolarCity has since pulled out of the state due to an adverse ruling by the Public Utilities Commission making that business unprofitable.

Little is represented by the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), a division of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The Nevada Appeal reports the judge dismissed the case because CJCL failed to add Clark County and SolarCity as parties to the case as he had instructed.

But CJCL attorney Joseph Becker told the judge SolarCity was not added because it has left the state. What happens next is unclear.

 

Plaintiff Michael Little

The Nevada Constitution specifically states: “The State shall not donate or loan money, or its credit, subscribe to or be, interested in the Stock of any company, association, or corporation, except corporations formed for educational or charitable purposes.” Voters have three times rejected amendments that would have removed the Gift Clause.

 

Becker explained in an interview a year ago that CJCL is in the business of trying to set precedent that serves the public interest.

Gift clauses started appearing in state constitutions in the mid-1800s after state governments in the East invested heavily in private companies building infrastructure such as canals and railroads that went bust. The states of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan were bankrupted as a result.

“We needed a vote of the people to change the Constitution, which never happened, but now suddenly its OK for the state to do something that up until now, even they insisted, would take a constitutional amendment,” Becker said earlier.

Editorial: Federal stream diversion has washed out church property

Patch of Heaven erosion

The little Patch of Heaven keeps getting washed away a little bit at a time.

Since 2010 the Ministero Roca Solida (Solid Rock) church, which owns a 40-acre parcel of private land nestled in the middle of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Pahrump that it calls Patch of Heaven, has been fighting to protect its property and water rights from the federal government.

After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rerouted a stream that had run through the church property since at least the 1880s, putatively in an effort to reintroduce speckled dace, an endangered minnow, the rerouted stream overflowed its poorly engineered banks in 2010, again in 2015 and now twice this year extensively damaging the private land.

The first flooding cause $86,000 but the subsequent floods have created so much damage the church’s attorney is asking the federal court to award the church the entire value of the now practically unusable property and the value of five years of water rights for which the church as been deprived — $3 million or completely restore the property to its pre-diversion-project status.

The church claims the stream diversion was in violation of both federal and state laws.

Church minister Victor Fuentes and his wife purchased the land and its buildings in 2006 for $500,000 using church donations with the intent of using the property as a church retreat and to use the stream that ran through it for baptisms, recreation and for livestock. The church has since upgraded the buildings.

The church is being represented by the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, which is operated by attorney Joseph Becker.

Becker wrote in the latest lawsuit, filed this past month, that the Fish and Wildlife stream diversion moved the stream completely off of the church property and onto higher ground, which has resulted in modest rainfalls causing the stream to flood back into its original channel but in such a way that the water has eroded the land, “leaving a mini-Grand-Canyonlike landscape in the flood’s wake.” (Fuentes final complaint)

He added, “With each subsequent rainfall, the new rainfall creates new pathways for rushing water to re-enter Plaintiff’s land. The result is that less and less rainfall now results in more and more flooding and flood damage.”

The case has dragged on so long that there is a danger of running past the statute of limitations for a takings claim under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits taking of private property without just compensation.

In addition to the erosion and other damages, the suit notes that the federal land agency has been frequently closing access roads to the church’s property, purportedly due to the flooding caused by the government, and is failing to maintain access roads as required by an agreement with Nye County, making it difficult to even access the property.

Further, Becker writes, “Campers are typically dropped off in buses, which then depart the premises and return at the conclusion of camp, thus leaving would-be campers stranded and in danger of harm on the grounds in the event of precipitation and flooding.”

The courts need to step up and force the federal land agencies to treat private property and water rights with the respect guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Patch of Heaven flooding

A version of this editorial appears this past week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Owners of church await justice

Church tries to get Supreme Court to hear case

Feds can take property rights

NPRI fights federal power