US top court upholds ethics law on voting recusal

WASHINGTON(Reuters) – States can require that lawmakers disqualify themselves from voting on matters because they may have a conflict of interest, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in upholding long-standing ethics rules.

The high court unanimously upheld the Nevada Ethics in Government Act, rejecting arguments it was unconstitutionally broad and violated free-speech rights.

The state law requires elected public officials to recuse themselves from voting on or from advocating for or against any issue in which they appear to have a personal conflict.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in the 11-page opinion that the Nevada Supreme Court had been wrong in concluding that voting by a public officer was protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“Our history of limiting legislators’ ability to participate in matters in which they have a conflict thus suggests that the First Amendment has no application to voting by legislators,” he said, summarizing the ruling.

The House in its very first session adopted a rule that no members should vote on a matter in which they have an interest, Scalia said. Also, conflict-of-interest rules for judges date back to the nation’s founding and states have a long tradition of such rules.

“The fact that a vote is the product of a deeply held or highly unpopular personal belief does not transform it into First Amendment speech,” he said.

The case involved Michael Carrigan, a member of the city council in Sparks, Nevada. The state ethics commission began investigating him in 2005 after he voted to approve a hotel and casino project by a company in which a longtime friend and his campaign manager had served as a paid consultant.

The state commission concluded Carrigan should have disqualified himself and censured him, but did not impose other sanctions because the violation was not willful.

The Supreme Court case is Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan, No. 10-568. (Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Doina Chiacu)