Term limited? Hold on a minute

It is a testament to the power and survival instincts of Nevada’s political establishment that in 2008, 12 years after the electorate voted overwhelmingly to limit most officeholders to 12 years in any post, there still is no consensus or clarity on exactly when incumbents can be kicked to the curb.

A mishmash of interpretations has left different offices with different standards. First, an attorney general’s opinion in the mid 1990s held that the constitutional amendment wasn’t retroactive. Next, the Legislative Counsel Bureau determined that the term limits clock wouldn’t start ticking for lawmakers until the 1998 election. Then local officials began carving out exemptions for their masters.

Every maneuver was made to extend the careers of veteran politicians despite the electorate’s specific wish to end them. More than a decade of legal gamesmanship has perfectly illustrated why voters approved term limits in the first place — it’s virtually impossible to pry most elected officials from the bunkers they build in service to special interests.

Now, less than two months before the first ballots are cast in the state’s primary election, the Nevada Supreme Court finally has been asked to settle the term limits issue once and for all. Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto filed a petition with the court on behalf of Secretary of State Ross Miller, who has contested the re-election bids of more than 20 incumbents statewide.

Among those who have served at least 12 years in their respective offices are Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, Regent Thalia Dondero and Clark County School Board Trustees Ruth Johnson and Mary Beth Scow. All were advised by Clark County District Attorney David Roger that the terms they won in the 1996 election, which coincided with the approval of the term limits amendment, don’t count toward the 12-year cap on service, and that all are thus free to seek an additional term in office.

“I’m confident 12 years means 12 years under the constitution, and ultimately a court will decide the issue,” said Mr. Miller, the state’s chief elections officer.

“The will of the voters is clear from the results of two general elections,” Ms. Masto wrote in her Supreme Court brief. “The voters added term limits to Nevada’s constitution to restrict the service of officials to 12 years.”

The argument is so clear it begs the question of why it took so long to bring it before the state’s highest court. Now justices have only a few weeks to make a decision that could knock a couple of dozen candidates off the August and November ballots. Meanwhile, these candidates are out raising and spending campaign funds, while county registrars are on standby, waiting to print sample ballots that must be mailed by the middle of next month to accommodate early voters.

In short order, the Supreme Court needs to tie up 12 years of confusion and controversy. Its ruling should leave no doubt about who is eligible to continue service in their current offices and who needs to line up new work. The previous attorney general’s opinion, Legislative Counsel Bureau opinion and district attorney’s opinion should be tossed in the circular file, one way or another.

Considering a handful of career politicians are plotting a more direct assault on term limits, hoping to overturn the amendment altogether on the grounds that the Supreme Court erred in changing the ballot question between the 1994 and 1996 elections, it will be interesting to see whether justices have the audacity to validate term limits in one ruling and then kill them in a subsequent case.

In the meantime, Mr. Miller and Ms. Cortez Masto deserve credit here for defending term limits and asserting that the law means what it says.

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