CARSON CITY -- Supreme Court justices and candidates' attorneys challenged arguments Monday by a legislative lawyer who said voters didn't understand what they were doing when they passed a constitutional amendment in 1994 and again in 1996 limiting the terms of officeholders to 12 years.
Legislative lawyer Kevin Powers argued that the ballot proposal did not specifically state that even those who serve on the Mosquito and Weed Abatement District and East Fork Swimming Pool Board in Douglas County are limited to 12 years in their office.
"I am interested in ensuring the integrity of the process," Powers said.
Las Vegas lawyer Dominic Gentile argued Powers should have hired a pollster to support his point about voters failing to understand.
"He should have crafted a survey to measure whether we had dummies as voters in 1994 and 1996," Gentile said.
"People in 1994 and 1996 said we want to put an end to this dynasty," continued the attorney, who is representing Steve Sisolak, a candidate for the Clark County Commission seat held by Bruce Woodbury.
Justices did not make an immediate decision in the case. But virtually every question they asked Powers, the only lawyer arguing that term limits were unconstitutional, challenged his reasoning.
"Why did the Legislature wait 12 years to bring this up?" Justice Jim Hardesty asked.
If legislators were concerned that the issue was placed on the ballot in an improper manner, Hardesty said, they should have brought it up before the measure received voters' approval.
Powers argued that an "immediate disruption" of the Legislature will result if justices keep term limits and decide 13 veteran legislators are ineligible to run for re-election this year.
"Their experience is invaluable," said Powers of legislators such as Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who could become ineligible to seek re-election.
But Justice Michael Douglas noted Buckley herself decided not to challenge the constitutionality of term limits. She did not appear in court Monday.
Douglas added it was the "prerogative of the people" to limit politicians' service in office.
Seventy percent of voters approved the measure in 1994, and 54 percent in 1996.
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said justices would do a "disservice to the voters" if they decided now, 12 years after term limits received final approval, to suddenly declare they are unconstitutional.
"You should respect their vote," added Masto, arguing before the court for the first time since she was elected attorney general in 2006.
Powers appeared in court at the request of Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.
He serves as chairman of the Legislative Commission, the group of 12 legislators who make non-financial legislative decisions when the entire Legislature is not in session.
Townsend, who attended the hearing, said in an interview that it was important for the Supreme Court to make a decision to put the issue to rest once and for all.
Chief Justice Mark Gibbons opened the hearing by emphasizing Powers had the "burden of proof" to show the term limits question was not properly placed on the ballot in the 1990s.
Powers argued that the term limits issue was approved by voters in 1994 but when it was submitted for a second required vote its wording was revised to exclude judges, and that violated a requirement for consecutive votes on issues phrased "in the same manner."
Gibbons would not predict when the court will rule, but said its decision will take longer if there are conflicting opinions by individual justices.
At the same time it decides the constitutionality question, the court will decide whether 20 state and local officeholders -- including Woodbury -- elected or re-elected in 1996 are eligible to run for re-election this year.
They also will decide whether Buckley, a legislator for 14 years, can seek another term in the fall.
The argument in support of the lawmakers elected or re-elected in 1996 is that their terms began the day after that election while the term limits amendment also approved that year didn't take effect until an official vote canvass a few weeks later.
If the court rules that Buckley cannot run again, then 12 other legislators up for re-election also could have their names stricken from election ballots.
It already is too late for ballots for the Aug. 12 primary to be changed even if the court makes a quick decision. Early voting begins July 26 and absentee ballots already have been mailed out to voters in the military.
Fifteen states have established term limits. In six other states, however, term limits have been repealed, including four states where courts found they were unconstitutional.
Another Las Vegas lawyer, Georlen Spangler called Powers's assertion that people did not understand the term limits question an "affront to the people of the state."
"I am not stupid," said Spangler, who represented Kevin Child, a Republican who is running for Buckley's District 8 seat. "I know what I voted for."
If a new, properly written term limits question that reflected the "true will" of voters was approved, then Powers said the Legislature would not object.
But Spangler pointed out that term limits would not begin before 2024 if supporters had to draw up a new question, secure voter approval twice and wait 12 years for the measure to go into effect.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.