The question is whether Carrigan should even have participated in an application for a new casino in this boomtown near Reno. It has turned into a major constitutional showdown with national implications for how states may police public officials who face a potential conflict of interest in conducting the people’s business.
It also comes at a time when ethics and conflict-of-interest issues haven taken on a new resonance in the nation’s political discussions.
Carrigan’s state has been rocked by the scandal involving Sen. John Ensign (R), who announced last week he is resigning. The U.S. Supreme Court strode into the conflict-of-interest issue in 2009, ruling that an elected judge should have recused himself when a major campaign donor came before him. And the justices themselves are under increasing scrutiny from the left and right about whether their activities outside the courtroom cast doubt on their neutrality inside it.
Against such a backdrop, Carrigan’s case seems like routine municipal politics. The ethics commission said Carrigan crossed the line when he voted on the casino issue after his longtime friend and volunteer campaign manager was hired by the developer.
The Nevada Supreme Court elevated the matter when it agreed with Carrigan that restricting his ability to vote on council business violated his First Amendment right of free political speech.
John Elwood, the Washington lawyer representing the Nevada Commission on Ethics, told the justices — who will consider the case Wednesday — that the ruling is “literally unprecedented.”
Backed by 14 other states, Elwood said such a finding endangers “bedrock conflict-of-interest rules in virtually every state,” including basic laws “that have been an accepted and necessary part of representative self-government since before the ratification of the First Amendment.”
Carrigan’s attorney, Joshua Rosenkranz of New York, said the worries are hyperbole. It is Nevada’s conflict-of-interest law that is unprecedented, he said, if it means that a public official who has no financial or family ties to an issue cannot represent his constituents.
To rule that Carrigan cannot vote because of his campaign manager’s interests is to ignore reality, Rosenkranz told the court: Politicians and their supporters are naturally aligned on the issues.
The Nevada Commission on Ethics, Rosenkranz said, “wants to take the politics out of democracy.”
The Lazy 8 casino project was clearly the political issue of the year in Sparks’s 2006 city elections.
Carrigan, a Naval Academy graduate and aviator who began a second career as a journalist after retiring in 1992, represents the ward where the casino was to be built.