The courts decided Wednesday to move forward with hiring a legislative lobbyist despite the Clark County Commission's rejection of their deal with former Assemblyman Morse Arberry.
After a meeting of judges opened to the media, Chief District Judge T. Arthur Ritchie Jr. said he still prefers to hire Arberry, whom he contended was unfairly criticized by county commissioners on Tuesday.
But Ritchie acknowledged that he isn't sure whether that will happen and doesn't know what path the judges will follow in the wake of the roadblocks the county set up in their pursuit of a lobbyist for the crucial 2011 legislative session.
The commission, which controls the judicial purse strings, has so far refused to allow the courts to pay the lobbyist with general fund money or court fees and fines that flow into the county's coffers.
"We'll have some course of action," Ritchie said. "It's not a red alert situation, yet."
Which path the judges follow, however, could land them in an unprecedented separation of powers conflict with the county.
The most confrontational course would be for the courts to issue a written order forcing the county to pay for the lobbyist with money from its general operating fund.
But after the meeting, Ritchie said the courts have never done that before, and it would be a "last resort" to take the fight to that level.
Ritchie and Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Ann Zimmerman rallied their colleagues at the meeting into taking a stand, suggesting the county's rejection of the Arberry deal was threatening the independence of the judiciary and harming its ability to protect its interests at the Legislature.
"Do you want the County Commission to be able to tell us who we should choose?" Zimmerman asked.
Ritchie added, "How do we deal with another branch of government curtailing how we do business?"
The judges' persistence raised concerns with commissioners who voted against paying Arberry $124,000 over two years.
"I'm very disappointed if the court is truly seeking to circumvent the county to pursue this matter," said Commissioner Rory Reid, who opposed having a legislator segue into lobbying without a cooling off period.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the public might take a dim view of the courts pushing so hard to hire a lobbyist.
"It's inappropriate use of (court) funding," Giunchigliani said. "It looks like you are fining people to create a fund you can do whatever you want with."
The courts should send an in-house team of lobbyists to Carson City instead of hiring outside lobbyists, said Commissioner Steve Sisolak, noting that the county planned to do that next year, partly to save money.
"I hope this doesn't end up in a standoff between the judges and the commission," Sisolak said.
Ritchie, who warned that "the judiciary is under attack in this state," led a discussion at the meeting about less combative options at the disposal of the judges.
One option, he said, is to persuade the County Commission to change its mind.
Some judges suggested striking a deal with another lobbyist more to the liking of the County Commission and then bring that to the commission for a vote.
Others said the courts should use people within the court system to lobby the Legislature.
Ritchie said afterward that all of the options will be explored in the coming weeks.
"The courts are not going to act in a rash way," he said. "We're going to work this out."
Arberry, former chairman of the influential Assembly Ways and Means Committee and an ally of the courts in past sessions, came under criticism for negotiating his two-year agreement with the courts while he still was in the Legislature.
Ritchie, however, insisted Arberry did not sign a contract with the courts until after he resigned.
Lawmakers have no cooling off period barring them from lobbying after they leave office. Several former lawmakers became lobbyists immediately after they retired from the Legislature -- including ex-Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, whom Ritchie said has $228,0000 deal with the city of Henderson.
Ritchie said Arberry, who would have had to give up his seat at the end of the year anyway because of state-mandated term limits, didn't deserve to be disparaged.
"I felt very badly for Mr. Arberry," he said.
Review-Journal writer Scott Wyland contributed to this report. Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.