The Supreme Court of the United States has given much needed guidance on the question of how the First Amendment applies to state ethics laws. The Court’s 8-1 opinion in Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan held that the First Amendment did not prohibit the enforcement of a Nevada statute requiring members of legislative bodies – including a city or town council – to recuse themselves when voting on a matter where the legislator’s independence could be questioned by a reasonable observer.
In Carrigan, the state ethics commission applied the statute to hold that a member of a town council should have recused himself from voting on a hotel project because a close friend and campaign manager worked as a consultant on the project. The Nevada Supreme Court struck down the statute by finding it to be an overbroad restriction on the council member’s core political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a state could place restrictions on local legislative bodies that prevent members from voting on issues in which they have a personal stake. Relying on historical evidence showing that many states and Congress had imposed such restrictions since the founding, the Court held that this type of ethics statute did not restrict the legislator’s personal speech but instead protected the public position the legislator held. The Court also suggested that restrictions on speech during city or town council meetings would be subject to review only under the less stringent standard for “time, place and manner” restrictions.