The suit filed on behalf of William Pojunis by the Nevada Policy Research Institute targeted state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who works as a computer technician for the Public Utilities Commission when the Legislature is not in session. Nevada lawmakers convene for 120 days in odd-numbered years.
Pojunis, 66, is an unemployed computer technician. His lawsuit argued that Denis’ employment with the PUC violates his own constitutional rights because it prevents him from seeking Denis’ job. The suit also names the PUC and state of Nevada as defendants.
Denis was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and served in that chamber until his election to the Senate in 2010. During the 2011 session, he was assistant majority whip.
Reached by telephone, Denis told The Associated Press he had no immediate comment on the lawsuit because he had not been served yet and had not read it. He was at a hospital awaiting the birth of a grandchild.
Joseph Becker, chief legal officer for NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, said the scope of the case goes beyond Denis and has implications for other lawmakers employed by state or local governments.
Of the 63 legislators in the Assembly and Senate, Becker estimated 20 percent — lawmakers who either work for the state, a local government or school district — could be affected if the courts ultimately rule in NPRI’s favor.
“Allowing one person to exercise power in two branches of government leads to numerous conflicts of interests and invites corruption,” Becker said. “It also destroys the checks and balances that were built into Nevada’s government to protect citizens from power-hungry politicians.”
Becker also noted an attorney general’s opinion sought in 2004 by then-Secretary of State Dean Heller, now a Republican U.S. senator. That opinion, written by former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s current governor, concluded that the state Constitution “bars any employee from service in the executive branch of government and simultaneously serving as a member of the Nevada State Legislature.”
It made a distinction, though, for local government workers serving in the Legislature, saying the constitutional requirement of separation of powers is not applicable in those instances.
Many public employee lawmakers such as school teachers take a leave of absence when the Legislature is in session. But Becker said that does not negate potential conflicts because lawmakers could be called into session at any time. They also serve on interim committees between sessions.