The limits of equality

All things being equal, there is no equality anywhere you look in the current fight over term limits in Nevada. And with so many different rules, interpretations and legal opinions, the issue will amount to a giant seesaw this election cycle.

For starters, term limits never truly got off on an equal footing. Voters certainly wanted it, and passed it twice in the 1990s. But the judiciary intervened in the years between the votes and removed judges from the term-limit scheme before the issue went to voters for the second time. How can a ballot measure be considered law when different versions of the initiative were approved?

All things being equal, this constitutional amendment isn't.

Fast forward now to 2008, a full 12 calendar years since the petition won final approval.

Several local officials and numerous state lawmakers won election that year. But the victorious state legislators effectively took office on Election Day. The poor local saps had to wait about two months for their official swearing-in ceremonies.

A former attorney general's opinion has led to the determination that the term-limits clock didn't begin ticking before the state legislators' terms. So, although lawmakers are in limbo, local officials who had to wait to be sworn in saw term limits begin before their terms began.

All things being equal, state legislators and local officials aren't.

It would seem fairly easy to figure out when the clock actually started, but Carson City time always seems more like something out of Lewis Carroll than Greenwich Mean Time.

During legislative sessions, state lawmakers actually argue against Daylight Savings Time in the waning moments of each constitutionally mandated 120 day-session. Most normal people conclude the day ends at midnight. Not the Nevada Legislature. They claim 1 a.m. on that last day in June because when the session started in February, they were on standard time.

As a side note, the clocks in the two houses of the Legislature are never synched, either. So as one house gavels, another still scrambles.

All things being equal, time isn't.

That is how we somehow arrive at the argument over whether the term limits amendment took effect in 1996 or in 1998.

Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto argue the clock -- or calendar, in this case -- started in 1996, when the measure passed. Others think voters actually wanted to wait two years to start it.

There are two ways of looking at these disputes. Miller and Masto take the position that it's better to go with the voters, while the Clark County district attorney thinks it's better to side with the candidate.

"The will of the voters is clear from the results of two general elections," Masto wrote in a brief filed with the Nevada Supreme Court, requesting a ruling on the dispute. "The voters added term limits to Nevada's constitution to restrict the service of officials to 12 years. While the service of Nevada officials must be applauded, the voters' will must be faithfully enforced."

Ironically, Masto's brief could lead to another assault on the will of the people.

All things being equal, the Nevada Supreme Court has ruled in the past that the Nevada Constitution isn't.

And when these jurists are asked to provide the fulcrum on which this teeter-totter is rising and falling, all bets are off. This is not really about a few minor school board trustees and beloved Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury.

The brief, and another expected to be filed before the high court this week on behalf of Woodbury challenger Steve Sisolak, seeks to figure out who should go on the ballot this summer. And while Aug. 12 looms as primary election day, it is certainly not a deadline the court needs to follow.

All things being equal, Election Day isn't really Election Day anymore.

More than half of all voters cast or mail ballots before Election Day. So, if we're really putting a deadline out there for an answer, it would have to come prior to July 26, when primary early voting starts.

Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax and other election officials scoff even at that date. They've got sample ballots to prepare and mail -- at great expense -- that require information much sooner.

Meanwhile, political careers are hanging in the balance.

Democrats often point to Masto and Miller as rising stars on their farm team. Either could be on the 2010 ballot as a candidate for governor.

But what happens if the court overturns term limits? Would Masto and Miller still be able to stick with their talking points about the will of the voters? And if term limits are dumped, how will that translate in a partisan sense?

Will Woodbury's many friends in the Republican establishment view it as a shot across the bow? Will it embolden the GOP in the presidential and congressional races, and Woodbury's daughter in her Assembly candidacy?

All things being equal, term limits have the potential to be a great equalizer -- just not in the way it was intended.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at