Brian Sandoval’s political soft spot

A little more than a week from now, Brian Sandoval will officially resign his U.S. District Court judgeship to launch a run for governor.

The Republican will enter the 2010 race as the front-runner. Polls have him far ahead of incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons, former state Sen. Joe Heck and former North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon in June’s Republican primary, and with solid support against any potential Democratic candidate in the November general election.

Which means Sandoval has already been tagged with a bull’s-eye bigger than Oscar Goodman’s martini glass. The camps of his many Republican rivals are laying the groundwork for a strategy to bring Sandoval’s poll numbers down — and keep their campaigns viable into the spring.

Some of the weaker ideas for an attack focus on Sandoval’s 71/2-year rise from the Assembly to the chairmanship of the Nevada Gaming Commission to attorney general to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. Anyone who tries to paint Sandoval as a quitter or someone with unquenchable political ambition will end up highlighting the fact that he has as wide a range of relevant experience as anyone in the governor’s race.

No, Sandoval’s soft spot is a far easier target — and a much greater political liability — than anything related to the 46-year-old’s propensity for promotions. And the campaign consultants only have to go back six years to refresh the public’s memory.

Brian Sandoval was a central figure in the Nevada Supreme Court’s disastrous Guinn v. Legislature decision, the 2003 ruling that briefly blew up the state’s separation of powers, created a constitutional crisis and ended a handful of political careers.

That summer, the Assembly’s minority Republicans held firm against the wishes of GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn, Democratic Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio to impose record tax increases on a recovering economy. The Assembly Republicans numbered 15 — just enough to deny Perkins the two-thirds supermajority he needed to pass tax increases out of the lower house.

Perkins, unwilling to compromise, passed the bulk of the state’s spending plan, then held the public schools budget until the end of the regular session, ensuring that its fate would be tied to the tax increases. When the standoff continued a full month past the Legislature’s constitutionally mandated adjournment and into the new fiscal year, Guinn decided lawmakers wouldn’t resolve their differences and fund public schools. So he sued the Legislature.

It was Sandoval who, in the darkness of midnight, personally delivered to the high court Guinn’s unprecedented petition for a writ of mandamus.

It was Sandoval who, on behalf of Guinn, urged the justices to intervene in the legislative process and take whatever action the court deemed necessary to install a public schools budget.

The court, overcome with spotlight-induced black robe fever, was more than happy to exceed its constitutional authority. On a 6-1 vote, justices ruled lawmakers could pass tax increases on a simple majority vote because the Nevada Constitution presented an “irreconcilable conflict”: requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature to pass tax increases while also requiring that public education be funded.

The decision, immediately ridiculed by legal scholars and derided by most Nevadans, was an unintended catastrophe for the Republican governor and attorney general. And rather than face the cameras and the public to assume some accountability for the chaos he had helped cause, Guinn had his lawyer — Sandoval — take the questions.

“Everyone is going to have a different opinion on this,” Sandoval said. “We just asked the court to require the Legislature to balance the budget and fund education.”

Oops.

In the end, one of the Assembly Republicans joined with Democrats to provide the two-thirds majority. The constitutional requirement was met, and more than $800 million in tax increases were passed. Years later, a newly constituted Supreme Court disavowed the Guinn v. Legislature decision.

But talk about easy fodder for an attack ad. Get some video footage from Sandoval’s midnight walk to the Supreme Court and his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the Guinn v. Legislature decision, then find someone with a somber voice to say: “As attorney general, Brian Sandoval set in motion a constitutional crisis that ended with record tax increases and bigger government. How far would he be willing to go as governor?”

Dishonest? Maybe. Sandoval will counter that his petition didn’t ask the court to raise taxes or overreach. He can argue that as the state’s chief law enforcement officer and counsel, he was simply fulfilling his own constitutional obligations. He can correctly say that he fought Republican lawmakers’ efforts to appeal the Guinn v. Legislature decision because federal courts don’t have jurisdiction over state constitutional issues.

But there’s a golden rule in politics: If you’re explaining for more than a few seconds, you’re probably losing.

Guinn v. Legislature remains a political cancer. Guinn and four of the six Supreme Court justices in the majority never appeared on a ballot again. Justice Nancy Becker, who defended the decision, was trounced when she sought re-election in 2006.

Only Justice Mark Gibbons voted with the majority in Guinn v. Legislature and won re-election. He did so by repudiating the ruling and calling his involvement in its creation an embarrassing mistake.

That’s good advice for Brian Sandoval.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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