Rachel M. McKenzie, representing Councilman Michael Carrigan, argued before the Nevada Supreme Court that a provision in the law intended to define conflicts of interest does not give elected officials enough guidance on when their outside relationships make it improper for them to vote.
But Jeremy Marwell, representing the state Ethics Commission, countered that the law’s language is clear and should be upheld.
At the crux of the case is whether a catch-all phrase in Nevada law extending defined voting prohibitions — such as in matters involving family members, business partners or employers — to any other “substantially similar” relationship is vague and unconstitutional.
The justices took the arguments under submission Monday and will rule at a later date.
Carrigan was censured by the Ethics Commission for voting on the Lazy 8 casino project in 2005. His friend and campaign manager, Carlos Vasquez, also worked as a consultant for the Red Hawk Land Co., which was backing the casino.
Carrigan disclosed his relationship with Vasquez on the record but voted on the advice of the city attorney, saying he didn’t stand to “reap either financial or personal gain or loss” by his action.
The ethics panel said he should have abstained from voting, and noted that most of Carrigan’s campaign spending went through Vazquez’s company.
Carrigan challenged the censure to the Nevada Supreme Court, which earlier said the law the Ethics Commission relied on was overly broad and “lacks necessary limitation to its regulations of protected speech.”
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed that finding last year on the narrow issue of free speech, and sent the case back to the Nevada court to consider any other legal challenges.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the nation’s high court, said an elected official’s vote “is not his own speech but a mechanical function of government — the commitment of his apportioned share of the legislature’s power to the passage or defeat of a particular proposal.”
Nevada and 14 other states argued that ethics laws around the nation would be threatened if the high court were to endorse the Nevada court ruling.
The Associated Press joined 15 other news organizations and press freedom groups in a brief supporting the Nevada ethics commission.