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EDITORIAL: Commissioners thumb their nose at state constitution

It must be nice to ignore the rules with impunity. Just ask the Clark County Commission, which this week offered a hearty forearm jerk to the state constitution as the board filled an open legislative seat.

The political arrogance is stunning yet hardly surprising.

On Tuesday, the seven members of the commission, all Democrats, unanimously selected Sabra Smith Newby, also a Democrat, to represent District 10 in the Nevada Assembly. She will replace Rochelle Nguyen, who was herself recently named to fill a vacancy in the state Senate.

Under the state constitution, the commission is charged with filling any midterm legislative openings in Clark County. The law wisely requires that the appointee be a member of the same party as the lawmaker who left the seat.

But the Nevada constitution also clearly prohibits public employees from serving in Carson City. Article 3, Section 1 divides the government into three branches — the judicial, legislative and executive — and instructs that “no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others.”

The purpose of the provision is to limit the consolidation of government power as a means of discouraging autocracy.

Ms. Smith Newby is the vice president of government and community affairs for UNLV. She previously served as Reno city manager and in various upper-level capacities for Clark County. To date, Ms. Smith Newby has not announced her intention to leave her sinecure on Maryland Parkway so as to be in compliance with the state’s separation of powers provision. As such, she simultaneously works for the university system, an arm of the state’s executive branch, while also exercising the powers of the legislative branch.

Apologists for the appointment will argue that the state Supreme Court in recent decades has never definitively prohibited dual service, and that’s true. The justices instead have preferred to look the other way and avoid the issue on technical grounds while scores of public employees — representing both parties — flouted the law over the years. Such inaction has helped create the toxic culture infecting a political class that believes it has the right to select which constitutional provisions to ignore without consequence.

The justices have the opportunity to right that wrong, as they are currently pondering a case involving a lawmaker who also served as a Clark County prosecutor, thus both making and enforcing the law.

In the meantime, no amount of lawyerly linguistic legerdemain can trump the plain language of the state constitution — or change the fact that the county commissioners willfully ignored state law and Ms. Smith Newby is illegally holding two state jobs.

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