U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court Considers Whether First Amendment Protects Politician from Ethics Rebuke
Posted Apr 26, 2011 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
Political ethics and the First Amendment clash in a city council member’s appeal being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
City council member Michael Carrigan of Sparks, Nev., contends his right to free political speech was violated by an ethics commission censure for one his votes, the Washington Post reports. According to the commission, Carrigan should not have voted on a casino project after the developer hired Carrigan’s friend, who had served as his voluntary campaign manager.
Carrigan says he was advised he could vote on the issue as long as he disclosed the relationship—and he did so. Despite his vote, the casino plan was defeated. He was rebuked under a state law that bars public officials from voting on an issue when a reasonable person would suspect a conflict based on financial interests, or based on the interests of a spouse, family member or “any other commitment or relationship that is substantially similar to a commitment or relationship described in this subsection.” The commission cited the “other commitment” catchall language in sanctioning Carrigan.
The Nevada Supreme Court issued a First Amendment ruling siding with Carrigan. The court opinion (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog) said the statute should be scrutinized under a strict scrutiny standard, and the statute was overbroad.
Carrigan’s New York lawyer, Joshua Rosenkranz, argues that the Nevada Commission on Ethics “wants to take the politics out of democracy,” the Post says. His Supreme Court opponent, Washington, D.C., lawyer John Elwood, says the Nevada Supreme Court ruling endangers “bedrock conflict-of-interest rules in virtually every state.”