Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical Wednesday of a Nevada ethics law that governs when lawmakers should refrain from voting on official business because they might have a conflict of interest.
The court heard argument in a case involving a city council member's vote on a casino project near Reno, cast even though his campaign manager served as a project consultant.
The ethics law lays out various relationships that should disqualify an official from voting, including relatives and business associates. But it also has a catch-all provision that swept in the relationship at issue in this case, and that appeared to make several justices uneasy.
The state ethics commission censured Michael Carrigan, a Sparks, Nev., council member, for voting on the project.
The Nevada Supreme Court said the law was too broad, violating Carrigan's free speech right to vote as an elected official.
The ethics commission appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up the possibility that the court would tackle the issue of whether elected officials have a constitutional right to vote on the business that comes before them.
Justice Antonin Scalia strongly advocated dealing with that issue head-on and said the court should conclude that First Amendment protections do not apply.
"I'm not so much concerned about the vagueness as I am about the proposition that ethical rules adopted by legislatures for voting are subject to review by this court or by any court under the First Amendment," Scalia said.
But other justices seemed leery of that issue Wednesday. "If we agree with you on vagueness, we don't have to determine whether the First Amendment applies in this type of situation?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked Carrigan's lawyer, Joshua Rosenkranz.
A decision that turned on the specifics of the Nevada law, which is unusual if not unique in its catchall language, probably would be very narrow. The law said that a "commitment or relationship that is substantially similar" to family members and business associates is a reason an elected official should disqualify himself form voting.
The ethics panel said Carrigan should have abstained from voting because his friend and campaign manager, Carlos Vasquez, also worked as a consultant for the Red Hawk Land Co., which was backing the Lazy 8 casino project.
Carrigan disclosed his relationship with Vasquez on the record but voted on the advice of the city attorney, saying he didn't stand to "reap either financial or personal gain or loss" by his action.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered why Carrigan went to the trouble of seeking the advice if he himself didn't harbor suspicions that the relationship was close to the line.
"This guy is a Boy Scout, Your Honor. He does everything to avoid any appearance of impropriety," Rosenkranz said.
John Elwood, representing the ethics commission, suggested another possibility, "a very intimate business relationship" between Carrigan and Vazquez.
"What we have here is a relationship that was front page news, because this isn't just some plain vanilla campaign volunteer," Elwood said, noting that most of Carrigan's campaign spending went through Vazquez's company.
The Associated Press joined 15 other news organizations and press freedom groups in a brief supporting the Nevada ethics commission.
A decision is expected by late June.
The case is Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan, 10-568.