EDITORIAL: Despite clear language in state constitution, Nevada Supreme Court says state judges can’t be recalled

Nevada’s high court justices have a long history of protecting their own. That’s why last week’s ruling in the case of a North Las Vegas judge was just business as usual.

In a 4-2 decision issued Thursday, the state Supreme Court carved out an exception for Nevada judges and held that, unlike other elected officials, they may not be subjected to the recall process.

The ruling is an affront to democracy, the state constitution and common sense.

The case began in 2015 when a group launched an effort to remove North Las Vegas Municipal Judge Catherine Ramsey from office. The judge, who was later disciplined by the state Commission on Judicial Discipline and barred from running for re-election, was accused of misconduct that included using city assets for personal use.

Judge Ramsey sued to prevent the recall, arguing that judges are not “public officers” subject to removal under Article 2, Section 9 of the state constitution.

Her argument was patently absurd. Nevada judges must stand for election and serve in the government’s judicial branch. To say they are not “public officers” is to deny the legitimacy of language, to insinuate that words have no meaning, to descend down the rabbit hole.

When a judge ruled the recall could proceed, Judge Ramsey appealed to the high court and found a friendlier audience. Writing for the majority, Justice James Hardesty conveniently side-stepped the “public officer” debate. Instead, he concluded that a 1976 amendment to the state constitution which created the judicial discipline panel also transferred from the citizenry to the commission the authority to remove wayward judges.

One problem. Nowhere in the language of that amendment does it state that, by voicing approval, voters were also surrendering their right to recall members of the judiciary.

The majority reasoning is legal gobbledygook.

As Justice Kristina Pickering noted in dissent, joined by Justice Michael Douglas, “No matter how strong the policy argument for exempting judges from citizen recall, unless and until the voters amend the constitution, the text of Article 2, Section 9 remains as written when it was adopted in 1912.”

Justice Pickering also noted that, “Nothing — not text, context, history, the ballot materials voters received, or the pronouncements of this court and the Nevada’s lead constitutional scholars — supports that our citizens gave up the right to recall judges when the approved the creation of the Judicial Discipline Commission.”

Back in 1994, Nevada voters approved term limits for state elected officials, including judges. But because the measure amended the state constitution, it had to pass again two years later to become law. In the interim, the state Supreme Court — threatened by the proposal and deciding that citizens were too ignorant to comprehend the ramifications of such a policy on the judiciary — broke the 1996 initiative into two parts, one for judges, the other for everyone else. This allowed monied interests to launch a fierce campaign against limitations on judicial terms, and that portion of the ballot question subsequently failed.

In this context, it should come as no surprise that a majority of the Nevada Supreme Court has now decreed by fiat that they and their brethren on the lower courts are above the state constitution’s recall provisions.

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