The Rule of (No) Law

Steven Miller

When Nevada’s Supreme Court voted to nullify the state constitution’s two-thirds rule on tax-increases this July, it wasn’t the first time the justices had brazenly flouted the state’s most fundamental law.

On one issue close to the judges’ hearts—their pocketbooks—that’s been the court’s modus operandi for over a decade.

During the 1993 Legislature Supreme Court justices testifying on a proposed constitutional amendment acknowledged the situation: For years, with the complicity of state lawmakers, they had been circumventing the plain words of the state constitution in order to augment their personal incomes.

In Article 6, Section 15, the state’s most basic document of law explicitly bars the increase of any justice’s salary “during the term for which they shall have been elected.” Yet the actual practice of Carson City conspirators had long been to do precisely that.

The dodge used, behind the backs of Nevada voters, was the state Board of Pardons. According to the state constitution, its members are the Supreme Court justices, the governor and the attorney general.

Suppose you were a Supreme Court justice who hadn’t stood for re-election since the last legislatively authorized While the Constitution says you are not yet entitled to the new, mid-term pay increase, you want it anyway.

No problem: Courtesy of your legislative chums, you were assured of back-channel payments of tens of thousands of extra dollars as a “salary” for your pardons-board duties. Of course, no such extra salary went to the newly elected or re-elected justices who also were serving on the board.

In 1993, newly elected or re-elected justices were at a salary level that lawmakers had recently increased by $22,600. How many days of work were required of you to—despite the explicit wording of the Nevada Constitution—get the same?

According to legislative testimony that year by then-Justice Charles Sprinter, about four.

That works out to a cool $5,650 per day.

As Mel Brooks might say, “It’s good to be a Supreme.”

In the 1995 Legislature, this particular long-running piece of budgetary flimflam came to an abrupt halt. For one thing, the smelly maneuver was now just too public. For another, in the 1994 November election 80 percent of Nevada voters had rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed judges to receive pay increases while in office.

Suddenly no legislators or Supreme Court justices had the stomach—on the record, at least—to ignore the clearly expressed, overwhelming will of the voters.

Carson City conspirators, however, were merely laying low. In the 1997 Legislature, then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Shearing admitted under questioning that a requested 40 percent budget raise for the high court included a “family court study” that, just coincidentally, would have routed some $500,000 to 10 judges.

All of them—seven district court judges and three Supreme Court justices—were, under the state constitution, ineligible for pay raises, since they were in the middle of their elected terms. Nevertheless, the “salaries” for conducting the “family court study” just “happened” to bring their annual compensation levels up to those of their newly elected colleagues. The three midterm Supremes were now to each receive $50,000 over the next biennium.

In the ensuing uproar, her credibility in tatters, Shearing stumblingly admitted also that another $170,000 presented in the court’s budget as “digital equipment” was phony—just more money slated for midterm salary increases. The Chief Justice blamed the untruthful budget on a former employee who had departed the Court three months earlier.

The next day that same former employee responded, e-mailing every legislator a copy of a letter sent Shearing, “reminding” her it had been “at the court’s direction (all five members present as well as the court clerk)” that the digital equipment entry had been made in the budget.

The plan, said former court Administrator Don Mello, had been for Shearing to choreograph the public hearing beforehand with conspiring lawmakers. Then, during the hearing, she was to withdraw the executive budget’s equipment request, at which point the conspiring legislator was to suggest that the “newfound” $170,000 be used for midterm judicial raises.

Two years later, during the 1999 Legislature, discretion—or embarrassment—ruled the day; the justices allowed their lust for midterm salary hikes to lie fallow. But in 2001, stealthily, the justices came back with a new variant on the same old plan—and prevailed.

Today, high court justices again are getting their unconstitutional midterm pay raises.

It’s for “serving” on “law library commissions.”

Steven B. Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.