Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen had one additional thing to be thankful for this year: the legal doctrine of standing.
In a unanimous ruling issued the day before Thanksgiving, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that Rick Workman, a city employee who was suing Hafen contending the mayor was ineligible to serve because of term limits, lacked the standing to bring such an action.
Workman lost a mayoral primary to Hafen in 2013. But earlier this year, the state Supreme Court held in a Reno case that a person who serves 12 years on a city council can’t then run for mayor, since a constitutional term limits law applies to all years of service on a local governing body, whether that service is as a council member or as mayor. And since Hafen has served on the Henderson City Council starting in 1987 (long before term limits were even passed by voters), Workman argued Hafen’s time was long since up.
Instead of deciding whether their Reno ruling applied to Hafen, however, the justices decided that Workman wasn’t entitled to ask the question.
“We conclude that Workman lacks standing to file either a statutory quo warranto action or a constitutional petition for a writ of quo warranto, as he has not identified any interest that he has in the office of Henderson mayor or in the outcome of a quo warranto petition that is distinct from that of the general public,” the ruling reads. (A quo warranto writ is a legal way for a person to challenge another person’s right to hold an office.)
And, if Workman has no standing to challenge Hafen, almost nobody else does. The only other person in Nevada who could bring a challenge against Hafen is Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who specifically rejected such a move, saying the Reno ruling created a new interpretation of the state’s term-limits law and should only be applied going forward. (Up until the Reno case, most everyone thought a person could serve up to 12 years on a city council, and then up to 12 years as mayor, since they were separate offices; the court disagreed.) The attorney general’s stance means Hafen won’t be allowed to seek another term, but can finish the one he’s currently serving.
Workman also sought to have the court compel the attorney general to try to crowbar Hafen out of the mayor’s chair, but the justices headed that request off, too. “Again, because Workman has not identified any beneficial interest in the outcome of the proceeding apart from any interests that he shares with the community at large, we conclude that Workman lacks standing to file a petition for a writ of mandamus in this matter,” the ruling reads
So that’s it. But at least one nagging legal question remains: If Workman lacked the standing to challenge Hafen’s legitimacy under term limits, how could Eddie Lorton — the plaintiff in the Reno case — possibly have had the standing to bring the lawsuit that created this controversy in the first place?
Workman had at least competed against Hafen in a legitimate election, and sued a sitting mayor under a directly-on-point precedent. (Surely, if the court had addressed the issue in the main, justices would have been forced to admit that Hafen has overstayed his welcome at City Hall under term limits.)
By contrast, Lorton brought his lawsuit before the Reno election had even happened, contending that at least two former Reno council members shouldn’t even be allowed to run for mayor because of term limits, in the process advancing an interpretation of state law that virtually no one endorsed at the time. Yet Lorton’s standing was accepted by the high court while Workman’s was rejected? That’s difficult to fathom.
In the meantime, Mayor Hafen is safe from challenge, and will serve his city until 2017. Oh, and Lorton? Yeah, he came in fourth in the Reno mayoral primary in June, even after his lawsuit eliminated the candidates with the highest name recognition from the field. He remains a private citizen to this day.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.