Nevada Ethics Case Headed to Supreme Court

The city attorneys for the city of Sparks have a unique audience for an upcoming case: the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court agreed last Friday to decide if states can forbid elected officials from voting when they may have a conflict of interest. The case involves a Sparks city councilman, Michael A. Carrigan, who is represented by the city.

The decision has propelled the city attorneys to call for help. Douglas R. Thornley, Sparks’ assistant city attorney, has handled the case as it wound through Nevada’s court system.

Now he’s going to Washington, DC, and he needs some help.

It’s not there’s a lack of lawyers who have the ability to do it,” he said. “It’s simply that the United States Supreme Court takes so few cases that the number of people who have experience practicing before that body is just a very small number.”

He’s already contacted somewhere between 10 and 20 law firms to aid in preparing the city’s case.

The case is called Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan. In 2006, Carrigan had disclosed that his former campaign manager, Carlos Vasquez, was also a consultant with a business seeking to develop a hotel-casino in Sparks. Carrigan later voted for approval of this casino in a land-use vote.

The Nevada Commission on Ethics ruled the vote improper and censured Carrigan, who appealed the ruling.

The Nevada Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision on the basis that Nevada’s ethics laws were over-broad and impinged on Carrigan’s ability to vote on public matters, a matter the court characterized as free speech.

A clarifying decision by the U.S. Supreme Court should settle the matter and provide the states with definitive guidelines for the ethical conduct of elected officials.

“It’s confusing because every state has a different standard,” explained Caren Jenkins, executive director of Nevada’s ethics commission.

She said that the nation’s states have three or more ways they apply ethics standards. A national ruling would standardize the states’ ethics laws.

“It’s about all of these things that are much larger than Councilman Carrigan,” she said. “All of the sudden this has to do with the entire nation.”

The trial is already national in scope. Eight other states had implored the US Supreme Court to take up the issue, and a high-powered team at the University of Virginia School of Law that helped petition the court to hear the case has now agreed to argue the case before the court.

That team, headed up by attorney John P. Elwood, will be the one the city of Sparks needs to defeat.

Thornley, Carrigan’s attorney, said that Elwood is among a group of lawyers who “pop up again and again” before the nation’s highest court.

“He’s still a guy,” Thornley said. “John Elwood had to argue before the Supreme Court for the first time one time too. … We’ll prepare as best we can and we’ll make our argument. At the end of the day, the law is the law.”

The court may hear arguments in the case during April, with an expected ruling during June.


  • Juli Alexander

    I went to a town hall meeting a few years back held by Craig Walton’s Nevada Center for Public Ethics, and questioned this very issue. I was told by the Legislator that to be unable to vote if a conflict exists means his territory would be unrepresented on that issue. Personally I know, the Nevada Commission on Ethics has its’ own conflicts; for example, in the Jared Shafer case — they allowed lawyer Hutchinson to be on the voting panel — I have the transcripts — even after Hutchinson admitted that Shafer was a client of Hutchinson’s law firm. Hutchinson expressed that he didn’t think that would influence his opinion, that he thought he could be impartial. BS. SO… really — what is the Nevada Commission doing here? While Hutchinson was appointed to their Commission, they ARE the pot calling the kettle black.

    I wish there was a way to get this info into Michael Carrigan’s hands!