Court settled special election issue without free-for-all politics

Nevadans now know how major parties should pick their candidates for a House seat if a vacancy occurs. The Nevada Supreme Court has spoken.

We should have had the answer back in 2003, but then-Secretary of State Dean Heller, a Republican, didn’t do his job and write the regulations as he should have.

We could have had the answer in 2003, if the poorly written bill sponsored by former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, had included specifics, such as how the major parties should nominate a candidate without a primary. After all, he spelled it out for the minor parties and independent candidates.

That gaping hole in his bill caused me to believe the selection would be by the central committees of each party, even though that is a very small group of people making a very big decision about the 2nd Congressional District seat.

I was pleasantly surprised Tuesday when in a 6-1 decision, the Nevada Supreme Court agreed with me that a free-for-all election, where any Democrat or Republican could run, had never been intended.

While the Democratic Party and Secretary of State Ross Miller had insisted that the law was oh so clear and that anyone should be able to nominate themselves, six justices with the final say shot that thinking down, while conceding the law was ambiguous when read alone. But read in conjunction with the other election laws, and looking back at a 1954 Nevada case, they concluded Miller’s "interpretation" that any Democrat or Republican could file was wrong.

But they said it in the nicest way.

Technically, they affirmed the decision of Carson City District Judge Todd Russell, except they said he reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. Russell had fired a salvo at Miller, saying his interpretation of the law was an "unreasonable and absurd result." The justices said that wasn’t so and wrote: "Reasonable policy arguments exist on both sides of the question."

One justice, fellow Democrat Michael Cherry, dissented, taking the position that whatever Miller decided was right because he was the secretary of state and in charge of elections.

Figuring out how to nominate a candidate for the House before this vacancy, caused by the resignation of Congressman Heller to become a U.S. senator, should have been figured out eight years ago before there were political overtones.

Democratic strategists wanted the "free for all" in hopes that many Republicans would split the vote in the district and a strong Democrat might win. Republicans wanted one GOP candidate and one Democratic candidate, in hopes that a Republican registration advantage would bring the party victory, as it has ever since the seat was created.

The justices looked back to 1954, following the death of U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, when the leading candidates were designated by the major political parties’ central committees.

"If the 2003 Legislature that enacted (Perkins’ bill) had intended to abandon this long-settled practice when it provided for special elections to fill U.S. House of Representatives vacancies, it seems reasonable to conclude that it would have done so explicitly," the court wrote.

The Republican Central Committee has already chosen former state Sen. Mark Amodei, and the Democrats have chosen Treasurer Kate Marshall, so those decisions are now set in stone.

The GOP now holds the advantage for that seat.

Call me naïve, but I don’t think that advantage has a thing to do with the fact that there are four Democrats and three Republicans on the Nevada Supreme Court. That opinion made common sense as well as legal sense, and any whining about the political ramifications of that decision is sour grapes.

Only two states have adopted the free-for-all system to fill House seats —- Texas and Hawaii. Doesn’t that tell you it’s a lousy idea?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison

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