Supreme Court Rejects Argument That Officials’ Votes Are Protected Free Speech

Denver – The Supreme Court on Monday upheld ethics laws across the nation that forbid legislators and city council members from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, rejecting the argument that governmental votes cast by elected officials are “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.

Conflict-of-interest rules “have been commonplace for over 200 years,” said Justice Antonin Scalia. They have never been thought to infringe on the free-speech rights of lawmakers, he said.

The issue arose when Michael Carrigan, a city councilman from Sparks, Nev., was censured by the Nevada Commission on Ethics because he had cast a vote in favor of a hotel and casino project that was backed by his campaign manager. The commission said that under the state ethics law, he was required to abstain from voting because of his close relationship with his campaign manager.

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Carrigan appealed and won a ruling from the Nevada Supreme Court. Its judges held that “voting by public officers on public issues is protected speech under the First Amendment.” The U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 to reverse the Nevada high court.

In the past, the court has said the Constitution gives legislators a right to speak freely, but it does not give them a right to cast a vote on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, Scalia said.

The right to vote in a legislative body “is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people. The legislator has no personal right to it,” he said.

Allowing the Nevada decision to stand would threaten ethics laws nationwide, the justices were told. They took up the state's appeal and rejected the free-speech defense in Nevada Commission on Ethics vs. Carrigan.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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