The governor’s willingness to embrace near-dictatorial powers during a state of emergency isn’t the only instance where a blatant disregard for separation-of-powers doctrine is doing damage to Nevada’s democratic system of government.
As it turns out, the legislature has also long demonstrated flagrant contempt for the concept of three co-equal branches of government—a core foundation of American government—and in so doing, it has eroded the protections Nevada’s constitution put in place for the governed. Basic constitutional concepts don’t suddenly become irrelevant or unimportant simply because of the political ambitions of members of the government class but, unfortunately, that is precisely what has happened in Nevada.
For decades, our state’s legislature has been comprised of many state and local government employees serving as lawmakers—writing the very laws they will then be charged with executing—in clear violation of the state constitution’s separation-of-powers clause. As the Nevada Supreme Court previously articulated so well, that clause—codified in Article 3, Section 1 of the state’s founding document— is, “probably the most important single principle of government” and, as such, not even a single “seemingly harmless” violation of the principle can be tolerated.
The constitution states plainly that “the powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three departments — the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial; and no persons charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution.”
The clear language of this provision notwithstanding, nine lawmakers currently in elected office also work in the executive branch as local or state government employees—which is precisely why Nevada Policy filed a lawsuit last month to enforce this critical and foundational limit on the consolidation of power within government. Allowing such a clear violation of the state’s separation of powers isn’t merely evidence of some academic harm to self-government—it has had consequential and damaging effects on public policy by eroding the checks and balances that are supposed to exist in a government made up of three separate, co-equal branches.
As pointed out in the recently filed lawsuit, last year’s legislative session demonstrated these harms in dramatic fashion when an active deputy district attorney serving as the senate majority leader killed crucial criminal justice reforms backed by her very own party.
One such bill, AB420, sought to ensure property owners were provided with basic due process protections when law enforcement seizes property. The bill enjoyed broad, bipartisan support and was passed out of the Assembly by a 34-6 margin, with every Assembly Democrat and half of Assembly Republicans voting to make the bill law. Yet, after a hearing which saw Senators and Clark County deputy district attorneys Melanie Scheible and Nicole Cannizzaro embrace the arguments put forth by their professional colleagues lobbying against reform, Senator Cannizzaro chose to kill the bill by preventing it from receiving a committee vote.
Given Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s day-job as a Clark County deputy district attorney, many progressives have openly questioned whether the interests of her colleagues in law enforcement were being prioritized over the will of the public. That isn’t an outrageous accusation, given that she was also responsible for killing a similar reform two years prior in committee.
Clark County Black Caucus chair Yvette Williams, reportedly told the Nevada Current that the conflict posed by dual-serving legislators like Cannizzaro is obvious, adding that, “This is something that needs to be addressed if the people’s voice is going to be heard.”
The problem, of course, is that such conflicts of interest were, in fact, addressed long ago through the Nevada Constitution’s separation-of-powers clause which specifically forbids individuals from performing “any function” in more than one branch of government simultaneously.
The damage done by this egregious disregard for Nevada’s limitations on the consolidation of government power isn’t theoretical—it has been clearly demonstrated, and similar abuses unfold every time the legislature meets. When the rules we place upon government—designed to limit and temper the abuse and consolidation of power—are blatantly ignored, what protection does the rest of the constitution actually provide we the people?
Michael Schaus is Communications Director at Nevada Policy Research Institute