The Nevada Supreme Court recently upheld the conflict of interest law in a 5-2 decision. A Sparks councilman had claimed that it was too vague and violated a politician’s right of association under the First Amendment.
Ultimately, the court found that the public interest in having their elected officials without any conflicts of interest outweighed the perceived infringements of the public official’s right to associate with people who could have financial interest in decisions made in front of an elected body.
Back in 2006, the Ethics Commission had censured Sparks Councilman Mike Carrigan when he voted on the Lazy 8 casino project. Carlos Vasquez, Carrigan’s campaign manager, had a financial interest in the project. Because of this, the commission found that Carrigan should have abstained rather than rote. Carrigan appealed the commission’s decision, which led to a six-year battle, ultimately reaching the US Supreme Court.
Nevada Chief Justice Kris Pickering found that even if one accepts the argument that the provision burdens Carrigan’s associational rights is some way, this burden is nothing when it is compared with the Nevada’s interest in stopping conflicts of interest and self-dealing involving public officials who make decisions affecting citizens.
The Court rejected Carrigan’s argument that the current law is too vague in its description of the types of relationship that are considered to be conflicts. Rather, the Nevada Supreme Court found that any public official could get an opinion from the Ethics Commission prior to the vote. In addition, the court found that the Ethics Commission need to have the flexibility to find whether something is a violation based on facts unique to the case.
As the Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, Caren Jenkins, put it, the court was unwilling to invalidate the law as being too vague because the commission applies it on a case-by-case basis, and this does not make it vague.
In the ruling, the court upheld the law as well as the censure of Carrigan from 2006.
Carrigan was disappointed with the ruling.
With this ruling, the seven-year ethics fight could finally be over. Back in 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court found that the commission’s action was a violation of Carrigan’s right to free speech under the First Amendment. The Ethics Commission appealed that decision to the US Supreme Court, which then rejected the Nevada Court’s decision that found Carrigan’s rights were violated.
The US Supreme Court chose not to address whether the law in question was too vague in describing those relationships that create a conflict, and remanded that question back to the Nevada Supreme Court.