CARSON CITY -- Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty said Tuesday that the state's rule on term limits for elected officials is unambiguous, agreeing with arguments that 12 years in office means just that.
But he allowed that Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, one of the politicians facing a term limit challenge, might be able to seek another term because of when she took office in relation to when the law went into effect.
Longtime Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, whose candidacy is riding on the outcome of the challenge before the high court, warned against reading too much into statements by justices hearing the case.
"I think the judges were asking questions of both sides, probing, trying to find what arguments stand up and what don't," said Woodbury, a county commissioner for 27 years.
His comments came after the Supreme Court heard nearly two hours of oral arguments concerning whether some politicians and lawmakers should be kicked off the November ballot.
Woodbury is one of several candidates being challenged by the attorney general's office on behalf of Secretary of State Ross Miller, who argues that more than 20 officials are prohibited from running for office again because of term limits.
Individual candidates have filed court challenges to Woodbury and the others as well. The challenge against Buckley was brought in a separate case.
In the Buckley challenge, Hardesty made statements indicating that the assemblywoman could run again because a provision placed in the constitution by the state's founding fathers apparently would permit her and other legislators elected in 1996 to seek one more term.
The legislators' term of office begins the day after election, in this case Nov. 5, 1996. Nevada's term limits amendment did not go into effect until votes were canvassed by the Supreme Court on Nov. 27, 1996, and the law is not retroactive.
Chief Justice Mark Gibbons said the court will conduct another hearing July 14 on the constitutionality of term limits. The cases argued Tuesday and that case will be ruled on later, and the rulings will come out the same day, he said.
If the court finds term limits are unconstitutional, then whether they apply to Woodbury, Buckley and others would become moot.
After Tuesday's hearing, Woodbury said the comments from the justices might have been made merely to draw a reaction from the lawyers.
Regardless, an assertion by Hardesty that term limits might not apply this year to legislators did not go over well with lawyer Georlen Spangler, representing Kevin Child, a candidate seeking Buckley's Assembly seat.
"If it applies to anybody elected in 1996, then it should apply to everybody elected in 1996," Spangler said. "We have entrenched incumbents fighting tooth-and-nail to remain entrenched incumbents."
After the hearing, Spangler said she feared the court could make a split ruling, deciding Woodbury and the other challenged state and local officeholders cannot run for re-election but that Buckley can.
While Hardesty mentioned that the term limits amendment, passed by voters in 1994 and 1996, is clear, other justices on the seven-member court were not as definitive in their comments. Still, justices Bill Maupin and Michael Douglas at times made statements reflecting similar views.
A ruling that would prevent Woodbury from running would supersede an opinion issued by former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa three months before final passage of the constitutional amendment.
Del Papa ruled that term limits would not begin with that election. Instead she said the clock on the term limits amendment began ticking for candidates elected in 1998.
As a result, Woodbury and the other candidates with at least 12 years of service relied on her opinion and filed for re-election in May.
But Hardesty questioned whether allowing them to run for re-election this year was correct.
If the term limits amendment "isn't ambiguous, it does not matter what that (Del Papa's) opinion was," he said.
"There is nothing ambiguous about 12 years," said Deputy Attorney General Wayne Howle, arguing the case for the secretary of state's office. "Twelve years is 12 years."
A provision placed in the constitution in 1864 stipulates terms for legislators begin the day after the November election, noted Reno lawyer Bill Bradley, representing Buckley.
Consequently, Buckley, as well as other legislators elected that Nov. 5 were not affected this year by term limits, according to Bradley, because their terms began before the amendment was effective.
Although Woodbury and other candidates also were elected on that day, their terms did not begin until they were sworn in the following January.
Reno lawyer Byron "Bill" Bilyeu, representing Board of Regents member Howard Rosenberg, argued that Las Vegas political consultant Sig Rogich, who placed the term limits amendment on the ballot, stated in affidavits that term limits did not apply to anyone elected in 1996.
Instead they began with the election in 1998, he added.
"That comes into play only if it (the amendment) is ambiguous," Hardesty responded.
Beside the constitutional issues, Woodbury said outside court, fairness is at stake in the case.
He noted that he and many other politicians relied on Del Papa's opinion and subsequent opinions by district attorneys' offices that mirrored her view.
"We filed without knowing there was a contrasting opinion until the last day of filing (in May)," Woodbury said. "Anyone with a contrary opinion should have made it known many months before so it could have been resolved before the filing period.
"There is not only the question of fairness to the incumbents who were told they could run, but to the numerous other people who might have filed if they knew the incumbent could not run," he added. "The incumbents also might have run for another office."
Miller filed the challenges affecting Woodbury and the other candidates -- with the exception of Buckley -- just before the end of the May filing deadline.
When county district attorneys refused to take steps to remove their names from the ballot, Miller appealed to the Supreme Court.
The secretary of state seeks a writ to compel the district attorneys to follow the 12-year limitation law.
Buckley did not attend the hearing.
But Bradley pointed out that framers of the state constitution back in 1864 found a good reason to decide that legislators officially take office the day after the election. They feared the governor would "wreak havoc" by calling outgoing legislators into an immediate special session and passing laws opposed by those who had just been elected.
Spangler, however, noted newly elected legislators never have been called into a special session right after a November election.
Like other officeholders, legislators take their seats when sworn in the following January or February, she said.
But Bradley pointed out that newly elected legislators were sworn into office only days after the election in 2004. Members were called in to hear the impeachment case against former Controller Kathy Augustine.
They took office 13 days before the results in the election were canvassed by the Supreme Court, he said.
Contact Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.