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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Government Ethics Law Over First Amendment Challenge

The Supreme Court of the United States has given much needed guidance on the question of how the First Amendment applies to state ethics laws. The Court’s 8-1 opinion in Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan held that the First Amendment did not prohibit the enforcement of a Nevada statute requiring members of legislative bodies – including a city or town council – to recuse themselves when voting on a matter where the legislator’s independence could be questioned by a reasonable observer.

In Carrigan, the state ethics commission applied the statute to hold that a member of a town council should have recused himself from voting on a hotel project because a close friend and campaign manager worked as a consultant on the project. The Nevada Supreme Court struck down the statute by finding it to be an overbroad restriction on the council member’s core political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a state could place restrictions on local legislative bodies that prevent members from voting on issues in which they have a personal stake. Relying on historical evidence showing that many states and Congress had imposed such restrictions since the founding, the Court held that this type of ethics statute did not restrict the legislator’s personal speech but instead protected the public position the legislator held. The Court also suggested that restrictions on speech during city or town council meetings would be subject to review only under the less stringent standard for “time, place and manner” restrictions.

The opinion can be found at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/10-568.pdf

© 2021 BARNES & THORNBURG LLPNational Law Review, Volume I, Number 177
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Mark Crandley Litigation Attorney
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Appellate adviser and litigator Mark Crandley is at his best when faced with high-stakes claims that involve issues of critical importance and concern. After nearly two decades of practice, Mark knows what does and does not work. Clients and colleagues alike rely upon him for his judgement and leadership throughout the dispute resolution process.

Mark focuses his practice on appeals, constitutional and government law, commercial litigation, and the resolution of probate disputes. He has represented government entities and businesses in courts across the country, and is valued for...

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