Term limits and the state high court

After an untold number of electoral, political and legal challenges spanning two decades, the fate of term limits in Nevada comes down to this ridiculous scenario: The state Supreme Court will decide next month whether the constitutional amendment it upheld and forwarded to voters 12 years ago is constitutional.

We all knew this was coming. The court already was considering two term-limits cases involving about two dozen 12-year incumbents seeking re-election this year in defiance of the amendment. Ratified in 1996, the term limit amendment reads: “No person may be elected [to such office] who has served in that office, or at the expiration of his current term if he is so serving will have served, 12 years or more.”

Oral arguments in those cases are scheduled for Tuesday.

However, the puppet masters of Nevada’s political elite quietly have been plotting a much deeper attack on the amendment all year. Rather than concede that term limits are a legitimate check on the power amassed by longtime elected officials, and seek to clarify when the limits take effect, these would-be monarchs assert that the Supreme Court erred when it split the original term limits initiative into two separate questions for the 1996 election. Because the judiciary was removed from the term limits initiative that first won voter approval in 1994, voters did not approve identical questions in consecutive elections, as required by the state constitution to amend the state’s founding document.

And so on Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the issue on July 14 in response to a whisper campaign instead of a formal appeal, indicating that justices want to settle the issue once and for all this summer.

Although it’s unclear what arguments the court expects to hear — how can a constitutional amendment be unconstitutional? — justices have taken the proper course. Unfortunately, the court has things backward.

It would be far more efficient for the court to consider the amendment’s “constitutionality” first, then hear arguments on whether term limits took effect in 1996 or 1998 — and whether incumbents including Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley can remain on this year’s ballot.

Instead, the Supreme Court will have to make an extra effort to spare this year’s elections from unnecessary delays and legal upheaval.

The clear language of the amendment should leave the justices with a simple task. District Judge Richard Wagner, in a Tuesday ruling that removed three 12-year incumbents from rural Nevada from this year’s ballot pending the Supreme Court rulings, put it best: “When the people through the lawful and legitimate process amend the state constitution, as was done in this matter, to set eligibility for public office, it is not for the courts to set aside the clear intent of the people to frustrate their intent.”

The Nevada Supreme Court should uphold the constitutionality of the state’s term limits, then rule that the amendment means what it says — and order 12-year incumbents to find other work next year.

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