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.