Debate over Nevada's term limits reached the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, as the state's attorney general asked the high court to end confusion over status of veteran officials who have served for 12 or more years and are seeking re-election.
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto filed the petition on behalf of Secretary of State Ross Miller, who has challenged 21 re-election candidates on grounds they've reached the 12-year limit for time in office.
A second petition to the high court was being prepared by attorneys for Steve Sisolak, the state university-college system regent seeking a seat on the Clark County Commission held by longtime commissioner Bruce Woodbury. Sisolak says Woodbury should be blocked from running again because he has served on that panel since 1981.
The filings don't challenge the constitutionality of the term limits, although they could provide an opportunity for foes of the limits approved by voters in 1996 to join in the litigation and argue that the restrictions should be tossed out.
"All we're seeking is clarification of who is or isn't eligible for re-election," said Matt Griffin, Miller's chief elections deputy.
Part of the argument in both cases is that the Supreme Court's prompt attention to the controversy is needed because several county district attorneys around the state have clashing opinions on the challenge notices they got from Miller for officials within their jurisdictions.
Also, some of the challenged officials, ranging from well-known county commissioners and regents to a longtime member of a rural mosquito and weed abatement board, face Aug. 12 primary elections and need to know quickly where they stand.
Miller contends that most public officials elected or re-elected in 1996 have reached the limit, under a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1996. Legislators are excluded since they take office the day after November elections - and the clock on the limit didn't start running in 1996 until a few weeks later when the official vote canvass was taken.
The secretary of state's challenges were sent out to prosecutors in Carson City, Washoe, Clark, Churchill, Lyon, Douglas, White Pine, Nye, Lincoln, Humboldt, Pershing and Storey counties. District attorneys in Clark and Washoe, Nevada's largest counties, and in Churchill County disagreed with Miller while at least two of the prosecutors in the other counties agreed and planned to carry out his requested legal challenges.
Clark County District Attorney David Roger told Miller that he didn't believe Woodbury, on the commission since 1981, and three other officials are violating state term limits. Roger's decision also favors university regent Thalia Dondero and school board members Mary Beth Scow and Ruth Johnson.
Roger said the attorney general's advice to Miller appears to be that 1996 doesn't count as the start of the 12-year term-limit period only for state legislators. But he said treating lawmakers differently than the other officials raises a question whether the distinction violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Miller also faced resistance from Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick, who said he sees no legal basis to move against Howard Rosenberg of Reno, a university-college system regent who was first elected in 1996.
Under state law, the secretary of state's challenges go to district attorneys in counties where challenged officials live. The local prosecutor then determines whether there's probable cause to pursue the case.
If the cases expand into a constitutional challenge of the limits, one likely legal argument would be that voters are supposed to vote on questions presented "in the same manner" in two consecutive elections to change the Nevada Constitution, but that's not exactly what happened.
Two consecutive public votes are required for constitutional changes. A 1994 ballot question limited terms of all elected officials, including judges, but the 1996 question was split into two parts by the state Supreme Court. One part covered judges and was rejected by voters, and the second part covered the other officials and was passed.
Supporters contend term limits give voters more control and prevent career politicians from locking out newcomers and becoming beholden to special interests. Critics maintain term limits have resulted in a loss of valuable experience, institutional memory and an increase in the power of lobbyists, staff and bureaucrats.