The secretary of state's office could move to yank some of Southern Nevada's longest-serving politicians off the upcoming ballot because of term limits.
The candidacies of several local elected leaders, including Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, are under review by the state's top elections official, who ruled this week that three Northern Nevada school trustees were ineligible to run because of the 1996 voter-approved law that limits terms to 12 years.
Two of the trustees dropped out of their races Friday, the last day to file for office.
Matt Griffin, the secretary of state's chief election officer, said he was gathering information on Woodbury and others before decisions were made on challenging their candidacies. The reviews were prompted by complaints, but he wouldn't say who filed them.
"Anytime you're considering challenging someone's candidacy for office, it's not a decision you take lightly," Griffin said.
The deadline to file challenges is June 2. Griffin said his office was consulting with the attorney general's office on legal issues surrounding term limits.
One of Woodbury's campaign advisers said he would fight any challenge of the commissioner's candidacy.
"This has been kind of out of left field," Jim Ferrence said. "It seems to defy every other previous ruling out there."
Woodbury planned to run for a final term before leaving the seat he's held since 1981.
"Nothing's changed," Ferrence said. "We're operating under the presumption that the commissioner is going to be on the ballot."
Woodbury said Friday night that he was puzzled that state officials waited until so close to the filing deadline to take action. That prevents many worthy candidates from filing, he said.
"I have no problem if I'm not eligible to run," he said. "I think the community can do fine without me. But for this to come up the last day of filing is pretty bad."
Before filing for office in 2004, Woodbury asked the Clark County district attorney's office for an opinion on term limits. In her opinion dated Aug. 4, 2003, County Counsel Mary-Anne Miller wrote that Woodbury was eligible to hold office until 2012. Woodbury said the district attorney had assured him the 2000 election was when he became subject to the rule.
Miller cited a 1996 opinion by then-Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa that said the limits did not apply to anyone elected before Nov. 27, 1996.
"We agree with the Attorney General's analysis that there was no apparent intent to make the term limitation amendment retroactive," Miller wrote.
Woodbury and the other officials under review were elected several weeks before the law took effect.
However, the basis of the secretary of state's potential challenge would be that Woodbury and others in his situation were not sworn in until January 1997, after the limits took effect.
Legislators are in a different situation because their terms are considered to begin immediately after the November election.
The secretary of state's own 2007-08 Election Information Guide cites the 1996 attorney general opinion, saying, "Term limits are not retroactive and apply only to periods of service commencing after November 27, 1996."
Any challenges by the secretary of state's office would be referred to the Clark County district attorney's office. Attorneys there would review the challenge and decide whether to file a District Court petition to remove the candidate's name from the ballot, District Attorney David Roger said.
Although anyone can file a civil lawsuit challenging someone's candidacy, any official challenge would have to come through his office, Roger said.
"Under statute, our word is final," he said.
When asked what his office might do with a challenge, Roger referred to Miller's 2003 opinion.
Woodbury said he has heard talk of how state officials might be using him to challenge term limits. If that's true, then they picked the wrong person as a test case, he said.
He has no intention of challenging term limits, he said. He'll only oppose an incorrect application of them.
"So we'll have to wait and see what happens," he said.
In all three Northern Nevada cases, Secretary of State Ross Miller said the trustees would have served 12 years in their posts by the end of this year and under the term limits written into the Nevada Constitution a decade ago, they can't serve any longer.
Washoe County school trustee Jonnie Pullman, who withdrew from her race after the challenge, called the secretary of state's actions "absurd" and "unconscionable." She said that if the issue is 12 years, there are other officeholders -- notably many veteran state legislators -- in the same situation.
However, a Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau opinion has concluded that for purposes of term limits, the state legislators' first terms began with the election in 1998 rather than 1996.
If a court fight develops over any other challenges filed by the June 2 deadline, the cases could move quickly to the Nevada Supreme Court. That's a prospect many term-limited officials up for re-election this year would like to see.
Because of the limits, two dozen veteran legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, face final races this year or were re-elected for what could be the last time in 2006.
Besides the state lawmakers, the Nevada Association of Counties has noted that many county commissioners, city council members, mayors, town board members and others are affected by the limits.
A Supreme Court petition aimed at voiding term limits wouldn't go unchallenged. Main advocates of the limits approved by voters in the mid-1990s included prominent GOP power broker Sig Rogich -- and Rogich hasn't changed his mind on the issue.
Philip Blumel, head of U.S. Term Limits, which backed Nevada's 1994 and 1996 statewide votes for term limits, said his group also would fight the effort to cancel the limits.
The Nevada limits are among the most liberal in the nation. They allow legislators to serve 12 years in each house. In some other states, the limit is half that. In addition, Nevada limits statewide constitutional officers to two four-year terms.
Supporters contend term limits give voters more control and prevent career politicians from locking out newcomers and becoming beholden to special interests. Critics maintain term limits have resulted in a loss of valuable experience, institutional memory and an increase in the power of lobbyists, staff and bureaucrats.
Review-Journal writer Molly Ball and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281. Contact reporter Scott Wyland at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.