Court rules on term limits

In two rulings Friday, a day before the start of Nevada's early voting, the state Supreme Court dropped many veteran public officials from the ballot because they've hit a voter-mandated limit of 12 years of service.

The high court decisions preserving the term limits enacted by Nevada voters in 1996 protect 13 longtime state legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, even though they have served 12 years or more.

But the rulings mean no votes can be counted for at least 18 other incumbents in local or state government service, among them Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, a 27-year fixture on the powerful commission who already has spent more than $200,000 in his bid for another term.

Others bounced from the ballot include state university system regents Thalia Dondero and Howard Rosenberg, several school and town board members around Nevada, and even a member of a mosquito and weed abatement panel in rural Churchill County.

The high court said the Nevada Constitution "plainly states" that officials can't serve more than 12 years, under terms of the limits on length of office approved by voters in 1996.

That voter mandate took effect a few weeks after the November 1996 elections, when a final vote canvass made the results official. State legislators elected that year took office the day after the election, and the Supreme Court said the mandate can't apply retroactively to them.

"As viewed prospectively from its November 1996 effective date, the term-limit amendment applies to all years served in office after that date, even though the office may have been filled by virtue of the 1996 election before the amendment became effective," justices wrote.

"Thus, any candidate for a state office or position on a local governing body who ... has served 12 years or more after the November 1996 effective date is barred by the term-limit amendment from further service in that position."

The court rejected arguments that the limits were invalid because the 1996 ballot question approved by voters was different than a 1994 version, which had included judges. Constitutional amendments have to be approved in two consecutive general elections in Nevada.

In the 1996 elections, the term-limits question was split into two proposals, one applying to judges and the other applying to local and state officials. The one on judges was rejected.

The Supreme Court's rulings included a unanimous, 14-page decision and a separate, 9-page order dealing with state lawmakers.

The order dealing with lawmakers says the framers of the Nevada Constitution deliberately called for the legislators' terms to begin the day after elections to "prevent any abuse of power" by a governor who might call lawmakers, including some just voted out of office, into a special session immediately after an election.

For Buckley, Raggio and other veterans of legislative service, Friday's rulings mean that the 2008 elections will be their last races for their current positions.

Buckley said the 13 incumbent legislators who now will remain on the 2008 ballot had anticipated a ruling in their favor. She added that a ruling against the lawmakers "would have been nothing short of chaotic at best" given the many fiscal problems the state now faces.

Attorney Bradley Schrager, representing Woodbury and several other term-limited officials, said he disagreed with the high court's conclusions but didn't know yet whether a rehearing would be sought.

Schrager added the officials he represented are "longtime, honorable public servants who have served the public well. They never challenged the validity of term limits. It was just a question of when they would kick in."

Election officials scrambled to adjust to the Supreme Court decisions. Since ballots were already printed for the start of early voting on Saturday, no changes in listed candidates could be made. Officials planned instead to post signs advising voters of the decisions.

"The ballots are all going to contain these names," Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax said. "What we're going to have to do is post signs at all the polling places explaining which candidates are out."

Chief Justice Mark Gibbons said the justices and court staffers rushed to decide the cases following oral arguments July 1 and July 14, realizing that early voting was about to start. In Nevada, about half of all voters cast their ballots early. Nevada's primary election is scheduled for Aug. 12.

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