Today, Nevada Policy filed a lawsuit in Clark County district court against nine state and local government employees who are currently serving as state legislators, in violation of the state constitution.
The lawsuit asks the court to enforce Nevada’s Separation of Powers doctrine, which states that the Government of Nevada is divided into three co-equal branches, and no one charged with exercising the powers of one branch may exercise “any function” pertaining to the others.
As the Nevada Supreme Court previously explained, the separation of powers is “probably the most important single principle of government” safeguarding Nevadans’ liberties and, as such, not even a single “seemingly harmless” violation of the principle can be tolerated.
Despite the Court’s clear guidance, however, state and local government employees have continuously served in the Legislature for decades, a practice which has undermined the principle of representative government and eroded the Legislature’s ability to truly serve the public interest.
“Allowing those tasked with carrying out and enforcing the law to also write the law totally and completely undermines the concept of a representative government and is a clear violation of the Nevada Constitution,” according to Nevada Policy Vice President Robert Fellner.
“Few would support rules that limit their own power,” Fellner said, “which is precisely why the power to write the law must be kept separate from those tasked with enforcing the law.”
The conflict of interest that arises from dual-serving legislators was especially pronounced during the last legislative session, particularly in matters related to criminal justice reform. Even though Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature, at least 16 Democrat-sponsored criminal justice reform bills were ultimately killed, according to the Nevada Current.
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s dual role as a Clark County deputy district attorney led many progressives to question whether the interests of her colleagues in law enforcement were being prioritized over the will of the public.
Clark County Black Caucus chair Yvette Williams, for example, reportedly told the Nevada Current that the conflict posed by dual-serving legislators like Cannizzaro is obvious:
“When a legislator has a job that’s in direct conflict with legislation that’s come before them how do we deal with that to make sure that bill gets a fair hearing?” Williams asked. “This is something that needs to be addressed if the people’s voice is going to be heard.”
Assembly Bill 420 was particularly revealing in highlighting this conflict. The bill was designed to reform civil asset forfeiture — a process that allows law enforcement to seize property, and in some instances directly profit from these seizures, from innocent property owners who were never convicted of a crime.
AB420 sought to ensure innocent property owners were provided with basic due process protections. The bill enjoyed broad, bipartisan support and was passed out of the Assembly by a 34-6 margin, with every Assembly Democrat and half of Assembly Republicans voting to make the bill law.
Yet, after a hearing which saw Senators and Clark County deputy district attorneys Melanie Scheible and Nicole Cannizzaro embrace the arguments put forth by their professional colleagues lobbying against AB420, Senator Cannizzaro chose to kill the bill by preventing it from receiving a vote.
“The process surrounding AB420 highlights the exact kind of conflict of interest the constitutional framers sought to avoid through the separation of powers doctrine,” Fellner said.
“The ability to use tax dollars to fund their aggressive lobbying efforts has already allowed government agencies to become some of the best represented groups before the Legislature,” Fellner said.
“This power imbalance reaches absurd levels in cases like AB420, where tax-funded government lobbyists need only convince their professional colleagues, who are concurrently serving as legislators.
“Does anyone really think ordinary Nevadans could ever be fully and truly represented under such an arrangement?”
For more information, please contact NPRI Vice President and Director of Policy Robert Fellner at Robert@NevadaPolicy.org.