Happy Flag Day! - The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules against a Nevada public official who argued that a legislator's vote is a form of speech protected by the 1st Amendment.
LA Times Editorial | http://lat.ms/kq8R2U
Supreme Court upholds conflict-of-interest laws
Justices unanimously back ethics laws that bar lawmakers from voting on issues in which they have a conflict of interest.
By David G. Savage, LA Times Washington Bureau | http://lat.ms/mlO3pk
Justice Antonin Scalia. (Tom Sloan / AFP / Getty Images)
June 14, 2011 - By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court ruled Monday against a Nevada public official who argued that a legislator's vote is a form of speech protected by the 1st Amendment. The decision is good news for citizens who want their elected representatives to be held to high standards of integrity.
Michael A. Carrigan was censured by the Nevada ethics commission for voting as a Sparks city councilman on a hotel/casino project that hired a close friend and former campaign manager as a public relations consultant. Nevada's ethics law requires local and state legislators to recuse themselves from matters involving relatives, employers, business partners or anyone with whom the legislator has a relationship "substantially similar" to such ties.
Carrigan challenged his censure, arguing, among other things, that his vote was constitutionally protected speech, not action, and therefore couldn't be regulated. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected that contention.
Scalia also surveyed American history to show that laws requiring legislators to avoid conflicts of interest had not been struck down on 1st Amendment grounds or otherwise. "The Nevada Supreme Court and Carrigan have not cited a single decision invalidating a generally applicable conflict-of-interest recusal rule — and such rules have been commonplace for over 200 years," he wrote.
Monday's decision didn't address two other claims by Carrigan: that the language of the ethics law unconstitutionally restricts the right of politicians and supporters to associate with one another, and that a key provision is unconstitutionally vague. In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy suggested that Nevada's ethics law might impinge on the 1st Amendment speech rights of legislators and their constituents "apart from an asserted right to engage in the casting of a vote. (Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., though he joined in the majority, wrote separately to dispute the idea that a vote isn't a form of speech.)
What matters about the decision, however, is the court's rejection of the view that an action — casting a vote — is a form of speech. A contrary outcome would have hobbled the enforcement of conflict-of-interest regulations across the country. Whether they are pressing their own position in a vote or deferring to constituents, legislators are engaging in an action for which they must be held accountable.
June 14, 2011 - Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court upheld ethics laws across the nation that forbid legislators and city council members from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, rejecting the argument that governmental votes cast by elected officials are free speech protected by the 1st Amendment.
Conflict-of-interest rules "have been commonplace for over 200 years," said Justice Antonin Scalia, and they have never been thought to infringe on the free-speech rights of lawmakers, he said.
The issue arose when Michael Carrigan, a city councilman from Sparks, Nev., was censured by the Nevada Commission on Ethics because he had cast a vote in favor of a hotel and casino project that was backed by his campaign manager. The commission said that under the state ethics law, he was required to abstain from voting because of his close relationship with the campaign manager.
Carrigan appealed and won a ruling from the Nevada Supreme Court. Its judges held that "voting by public officers on public issues is protected speech under the 1st Amendment."
The U.S. Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 to reverse the Nevada high court in a decision announced Monday.
In the past, the court has said the Constitution gives legislators a right to speak freely, but it does not give them a right to cast a vote on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, Scalia said. The right to vote in a legislative body "is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people. The legislator has no personal right to it," he said.
Allowing the Nevada decision to stand would threaten ethics laws nationwide, the justices were told. They took up the state's appeal and rejected the free-speech defense in Nevada Commission on Ethics vs. Carrigan.