Justices broaden look at term limits

CARSON CITY — The Nevada Supreme Court has decided to take up the issue of whether term limits for state and local officials are constitutional.

The court Wednesday issued an order asking all of the parties involved in the narrow term limits question — whether those who have served for 12 years in office can run for office one more time — to respond to the constitutionality question.

The issue will be heard by the court on July 14.

The court initially had decided to focus only on whether term limits started in 1996 or 1998. If the court agrees with Secretary of State Ross Miller that the 12-year limits started in 1996, then several local officials, among them longtime Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, would be removed from the ballot for the upcoming elections.

Miller had challenged the right of Woodbury, regents Thalia Dondero and Howard Rosenberg and 18 other local politicians to seek additional terms.

A second term limits challenge is aimed at state lawmakers and asks whether the 12-year limit applies to them too. Candidate Kevin Child has asked the Supreme Court to remove from the ballot the name of Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, who first was elected in 1994.

Former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa had issued an opinion that the term limits would not start to apply to legislators until the election in 1998. Several lawmakers running for re-election this year have served 12 years.

The separate cases, scheduled for oral arguments on July 1, have focused only on the issue of when the clock started ticking on the 12-year limit to serve in any single office.

The court has decided to tackle term limits head on, seeking to determine whether they are constitutional.

The order, signed by all seven members of the court, authorizes the Nevada Legislature to weigh in on the term limits question. The order directs the other parties in the term limits challenges, from Buckley to Woodbury to Regent Steve Sisolak, a candidate for commissioner who is challenging Woodbury’s right to run again, to respond to the constitutionality question.

Woodbury said in an earlier interview that he has no intentions of challenging the constitutionality of term limits, only their effective date and whether he could run for one more term.

Las Vegas political consultant Sig Rogich, who led the campaign to put the matter before voters more than a decade ago, said he is unsurprised the court has decided to address the constitutionality issue. But Rogich said he would be surprised if the court tossed term limits out in Nevada.

“I will find it very surprising if the Supreme Court told more than 70 percent of Nevada voters that they were wrong,” he said. “That would be a ballot box issue that would resonate for a long time.”

Members of the Supreme Court must stand for election. One member, Chief Justice Mark Gibbons, is up for re-election this year.

Rogich said there would be no harm if the court used the current challenges to clarify issues about how term limits apply to public office holders. But rejecting them outright would be another matter, he said.

Other state courts, while sometimes modifying the limits, have not tossed them out completely, Rogich said.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the term limits question could remain on the ballot. But it separated out term limits for the judiciary and term limits for other state and local elected officials.

Term limits for the judiciary then were rejected by voters in November 1996 but approved for other officials.

Other than that ruling, the court has not addressed the constitutionality of term limits directly, but other states have done so.

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