High Court Upholds Nevada Ethics Law

The Supreme Court has upheld a Nevada law that bars lawmakers from voting on or even debating matters in which they have a conflict of interest. A Nevada council member had challenged the law, asserting that it prohibited his first amendment rights.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to regulations about ethics. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday with broad implications for ethics laws, laws intended to regulate behavior of politicians around the country. The high court unanimously upheld a Nevada law barring state officials from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest. That Supreme Court ruling reversed a Nevada state court decision. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The controversy was local, but the issues were national. In 2006, the Nevada Ethics Commission ruled that Sparks, Nevada city councilman Michael Carrigan violated the state ethics code by voting to approve a casino development at a time when his campaign manager and close friend was being paid $10,000 a month by the developer. Carrigan denied wrongdoing, noting that he had disclosed the relationship.

Mr. MICHAEL CARRIGAN (Sparks, Nevada City Councilman): I did not do anything unethical. If I would have done something unethical, I would have resigned.

TOTENBERG: Carrigan challenged the ethics code in court, and the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring that a legislator's vote is core speech protected by the constitution. But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that as far back as the founding of the Republic, both federal and state laws barred officials from voting on matters in which they had a personal interest.

A legislator's vote is not speech, Scalia said. Yes, there are instances where action conveys a symbolic meaning - for instance, the burning of the American flag to convey disagreement with a national policy. But, Scalia added, the act of voting symbolizes nothing. It merely discloses that the legislator wishes to adopt the provision at issue.

Because the challenge to the Nevada ethics code was supported by some of the same forces that have so successfully challenged campaign finance laws, and because the Nevada court had tossed out the ethics code on broad constitutional grounds, reformers worried about a new front opening up in what they see as the war on anti-corruption laws.

But even Rick Hasen, a lawyer for councilman Carrigan, and a professor at the University of California Irvine, saw a contrary message in the Supreme Court's decision.

Mr. RICK HASEN (Lawyer): The court has signaled that broad first amendment challenges to conflict of interest rules are going to be off the table. It gives some breathing room for state and local government to impose conflict of interest rules without worrying about a lawsuit.

TOTENBERG: James Fobb, who has led the challenge to campaign finance laws, had a different take.

Mr. JAMES FOBB: This decision turned out to be a very narrow one. What the court refused to consider are the real First Amendment issues in the case.

TOTENBERG: Whether, for instance, the Nevada law violated Councilman Carrigan's right to freedom of association, by punishing him for the political loyalty of his campaign manager and friend. But most experts said yesterday, they thought that would be a stretch in light of the Supreme Court's broad statement that there is no personal First Amendment right to vote on a bill.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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