Law & Courts

Justices Decline to Hear Nevada Case on Taxes for Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — March 31, 2004 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to get involved in a hard-fought legal battle in Nevada stemming from a protracted legislative deadlock last year over tax increases to pay for public schools.

In a ruling last July that sparked a political furor in the state, the Nevada Supreme Court held that the legislature’s duty to finance public schools overrode a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution that requires legislative supermajorities to increase taxes.

Asking the justices in Washington to reverse the Nevada court, lawyers for two dozen Republican state legislators had argued that the ruling represented “an egregious disregard of the people’s will.” Voters gave final approval in 1996 to a ballot initiative requiring the two-thirds votes.

“The decision stands as an unvarnished usurpation of the authority of the Nevada Constitution, a shameful violation of the judicial oath, and a repudiation of the principle that Nevada’s is a government of laws rather than men,” lawyers for the GOP legislators wrote in papers asking the federal high court to accept their appeal in Angle v. Guinn (Case No. 03-1037).

But lawyers for the state legislature told the justices that the case was moot and therefore unworthy of the court’s attention.

They noted that the disputed tax legislation ultimately passed each chamber with two-thirds support on July 21—despite the ruling 11 days earlier saying those supermajorities were unnecessary. Those votes ended a lengthy impasse over the education budget. The battle had dragged on through two special legislative sessions after tax measures to finance the schools repeatedly failed to reach the two-thirds threshold in the Assembly, the lower chamber, by a single vote.

That chain of events, lawyers for the legislature wrote in papers urging the high court not to take the case, “leaves this court with nothing to do but provide an advisory opinion on an abstract political question in a case with no actual, live controversy.”

The Nevada court fight erupted a minute past midnight on the first day of the current fiscal year, when Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, asked the state supreme court to order the legislature to pass an education budget for the two- year period starting July 1.

In a 6-1 ruling on July 10, the state court held that funding for public education was simply too important to fall prey to a “procedural requirement” for a two-thirds majority. It ordered the legislature to “proceed expeditiously” to hammer out a tax plan to finance public education “under simple majority rule.”

“When a procedural requirement that is general in nature prevents funding for a basic, substantive right, the procedure must yield,” state Chief Justice Deborah Agosti wrote in the majority opinion, adding that “education is a basic constitutional right in Nevada.”

Return to Court

Shortly after the ruling, lawmakers did approve a tax bill by simple majorities. But the bill was never signed into law, and on July 21, after intense negotiations, legislative leaders mustered two-thirds majorities in both chambers for sizable tax increases to pay for a two-year, $1.65 billion school spending plan. (“States Open Fiscal Year on Shaky Ground,” Aug. 6, 2003.)

Meanwhile, the group of Republican legislators went back to the Nevada Supreme Court and asked it to reconsider the July 10 ruling. They contended that the ruling and its aftermath had violated the U.S. Constitution by running roughshod over their voting rights and those of Nevada voters at large, and by infringing the right of state citizens to choose their own form of representative government.

Last September, the state high court rejected the lawmakers’ arguments and reaffirmed its earlier opinion. On March 22, the U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment to accept the lawmakers’ appeal.

Still, the dispute over last summer’s budget showdown is not over. A separate legal challenge to the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, where it is slated for a hearing the middle of next month.

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