CARSON CITY, Nev. — A Nevada judge ruled Thursday that political parties can pick who will represent them on the ballot for the Silver State's first special election to fill a vacant U.S. House seat.
The Nevada Republican Party had sought an injunction to prevent more than one candidate from each party from appearing on the Sept. 13 ballot after Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller said Rep. Dean Heller's replacement would be determined by an open contest.
Gov. Brian Sandoval had appointed Heller, a Republican, to replace John Ensign in the U.S. Senate.
In a ruling from the bench after two hours of oral arguments, District Judge James Russell said state law was confusing, but he was concerned the rules set down by Secretary of State Ross Miller that would have allowed a free-for-all election amounted to "picking and choosing" different provisions of statutes.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin Benson said he would confer with Miller on whether to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Washington lawyer Marc Elias, lead counsel for the Democrats who has represented the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the past, had no immediate comment after the judge rendered his decision.
A three-day candidate filing period was to have begun Monday. In his ruling, Russell granted an injunction delaying that process until June 30 to give parties a chance to choose their candidate. There is no primary, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins.
Political parties can put nominees on the ballot by submitting their candidate's name to the secretary of state's office. Independents must gather 100 signatures to be included on the ballot.
"We are pleased with the court's ruling today and believe that the true winners are the constituents of Nevada's 2nd Congressional District," Cory Adair, state GOP executive director, said in a statement. "Our position is and has always been consistent with election law and tradition in Nevada; today's ruling reaffirmed our position."
During the hearing, GOP lawyers David O'Mara and Rew Goodenow argued among other things that denying the party's right to pick its nominee would violate constitutional protections of freedom of association.
"The fact is that we will have candidates that are not the party's nominees voted into office ... by voters who are not party members," Goodenow said.
The judge appeared to take a simpler view.
He said while law cited by the secretary of state deals with how names are actually placed on the ballot, the interpretation didn't consider other statutes on how candidates for a special election are nominated.
Ironically, Heller apparently contributed to the uncertainty of filling his own House vacancy.
Legislators in 2003 passed a bill providing for a special election to fill House vacancies and directed the secretary of state to adopt regulations on how the process would be conducted. Heller was secretary of state at the time, and there's no indication regulations were ever adopted.
It remains to be seen how the legal development will affect the political ambitions of Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle, whose strong grass-roots organization helped propel her to the top in last year's crowded GOP U.S. Senate primary. Angle was then defeated by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
She announced a campaign for Nevada's second district House seat earlier this year.
While a crowded ballot could benefit Angle, the Las Vegas Review Journal reports:
If Russell's ruling stands, tea party favorite Sharron Angle will have a tough time getting on the ballot because the GOP outsider has much less support after losing the 2010 U.S. Senate race to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. She said she won't run as an independent.
The AP could not immediately reach Angle for comment.
Heidi Smith, Nevada GOP national committeewoman, said the 354 members of the state central committee will meet June 18 in Sparks to pick a candidate.
Other Republicans who have announced their intent to run are state GOP Chairman Mark Amodei, a former state senator; retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold; and state Sen. Greg Brower.
Democrats who've expressed their interest are state Treasurer Kate Marshall; Jill Derby and Nancy Price, both former university regents. Derby twice lost to Heller. Price was the Democratic nominee last year and also lost to Heller in the largely rural Republican district.
Democrats saw the prospect of an open, free-for-all election as a chance to win the rural, Republican leaning seat for the first time in history. Those odds become greater if Russell's ruling stands.