If one was needed, the recent dispute over Reno City Manager Andrew Clinger has provided a demonstration of the stupidity of Lorton vs. Jones, the Nevada Supreme Court ruling in February 2014 that said Reno’s mayor is basically just another member of the city council, thus triggering city council term limits against mayor candidates.
The ruling, which had impact across the state, flew so sharply in the face of precedent that one Las Vegas newspaper article was headlined “Are you sure, Supreme Court? (Y/N?).”
Indeed, one of the precedents the court had to ignore was its own ruling in a 1940 case, Gilbert vs. Breithaupt, when it held, “The right to hold public office is one of the valuable rights of citizenship. The exercise of this right should not be declared prohibited or curtailed except by plain provisions of law. Ambiguities are to be resolved in favor of eligibility to office.”
Even in cases with no ambiguities, the Nevada Supreme Court stayed with precedents, as when Gov. Bob Miller, who was plainly ineligible for a third term, was allowed by the court to run for one anyway.
The ambiguities test is used across the nation, allowing voters their choices. But in the case involving the Reno City Council, the Nevada Supreme Court ignored not only the precedents but also the distinctions between the duties of mayor and those of city councilmember.
In the Clinger controversy, the mayor was the only person who could call a special meeting of the city council. The distinction in the roles of mayor and city councilmembers were there for all to see in the council hall when the special meeting was held. Whether she drew up the agenda or not, she clearly could have ordered what agenda items she wanted to be listed on the agenda, and the absence of one agenda item caused clashes between her and members of the council. It’s unfortunate members of the Nevada Supreme Court were not in attendance for a lesson in practical application of their decisions.
The mayor, unlike councilmembers, is empowered to deal with civil disturbances. The mayor signs city ordinances passed by the city council. The mayor nominates members of the Civil Service Commission, airport authority and other bodies; the council approves or rejects the mayor’s nominees. These are not identical offices.
What is especially troubling about the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision on local term limits is that in Nevada Judges Association vs. Lau (1996), the court stretched the law out of all recognition in order to split an initiative petition in two so that the portion affecting judges themselves was voted on separately in second-round voting. Such changes must be voted on twice, and the Nevada Constitution plainly says the measure being voted on must be the same in both first- and second-round voting. Yet the court altered the measure halfway through the process, then went out and campaigned vigorously against their own half, winning while all other officeholders—including the Reno city council—were term limited by the other half. The Nevada Supreme Court’s behavior in Lorton was flawed and in Nevada Judges was seamy, unprofessional and self-interested, making it difficult to believe in the honesty of court appeals.