Nevada Think Tank Files Court Complaint Challenging Ability Of Government Employees To Serve In Legislature

CARSON CITY – A conservative Nevada think tank today filed a complaint in district court against Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, saying the separation of powers clause in the state constitution prohibits government employees from serving in the Legislature.

Denis works for the state Public Utilities Commission as a computer technician. Attorney Joseph Becker with the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation said his client William Pojunis is qualified to perform, and would like to apply for, Denis’ job.

Attorney Joseph Becker, left, and his client William Pojunis, take questions after filing a separation of powers complaint today against Sen. Mo Denis. / Photo: Nevada News Bureau.

If NPRI wins its case, Denis and several other state lawmakers who work for state and local government and the Nevada judiciary could be forced to pick between their jobs and legislative service.

Becker said the PUC’s employment of Denis violates the state constitution’s separation of powers clause in Article 3, Section 1.

“Nevada’s constitution is perfectly clear: One individual cannot serve in two branches of government,” he said. “Allowing one person to exercise power in two branches of government leads to numerous conflicts of interests and invites corruption. It also destroys the checks and balances that were built into Nevada’s government to protect citizens from power-hungry politicians.

“Applying this principle to this case has significant implications for this state,” Becker said. “We have 63 legislators and something close to 20 percent of them are affected by this provision. They are working in situations that we believe are unconstitutional. When the court holds in our favor, those lawmakers would either have to leave their executive or judicial branch employment or leave the Legislature.”

Denis said today he could not comment on the complaint because he has not seen it.

“I’ve only been hearing pieces of it,” he said. “At some point I will have a comment.”

The PUC had no immediate comment on the complaint either.

NPRI has one strong ally in its court action. Gov. Brian Sandoval, while serving as attorney general in 2004, issued an opinion that also determined that the separation of powers requirement in the state constitution precluded state government employees from serving in the Legislature.

Written at the request of then-Secretary of State Dean Heller, Sandoval’s March 1, 2004 opinion said in part: “It is the opinion of this office that Article 3, Section 1 of the Nevada Constitution bars any employee from serving in the executive branch of government and simultaneously serving as a member of the Nevada State Legislature.”

Sandoval did not find that the separation applied to local government employment, however.

Heller, now a U.S. senator, challenged lawmakers who also worked for the government in 2004, but the Nevada Supreme Court said it could not consider the case, which was brought against the Nevada Legislature, because it is the Legislature’s responsibility to determine the qualifications of its members.

Becker said NPRI’s case is different because it is challenging the PUC’s ability to employ Denis given the separation of powers clause and his election to the state Senate. The complaint was not filed against the Legislature, he said. The complaint was filed in Carson City District Court.

Pojunis, 66, came to Carson City with Becker to file the complaint, but did not directly answer any questions. Becker said NPRI was approached by Pojunis and decided to take the case. Pojunis is currently unemployed.

Some of the other lawmakers who potentially could be affected by a court ruling supporting the NPRI position include Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who works for the Washoe County court system,; Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury, R-Las Vegas, both of whom work for the Clark County School District, and Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, who works for Clark County.

Becker said the legal action is not politically motivated.

“This is about him (Denis) holding a position as a civil servant that he is not constitutionally allowed to hold,” he said.

The Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, which calls itself a public interest legal foundation, was established a year ago by NPRI. This is the first case brought by the organization.

Andy Matthews, president of NPRI, said the separation of powers clause is a vital part of state constitutions across the country.

“And when you have decisions that are being made in the Legislative Branch that can impact Executive Branch functions, Executive Branch agencies, it’s very important to make sure that the people who are making those decisions in the Legislature are doing so from the standpoint of what is best for the people of this state and what constitutes good policy, not because of some conflict of interest they may have as a result of their service in the Executive Branch as well,” he said.

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Attorney Joseph Becker with NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation says the case has significant implications for the state:

113011Becker1 :24 leave the Legislature.”

Becker says the case is not political:

113011Becker2 :14 correct on this.”

Andy Matthews, president of NPRI, says the separation of powers clause is a vital part of state constitutions across the country:

113011Matthews :24 branch as well.”

  • Anonymous

    THIS should have been done decades ago.