The United States Supreme Court has rejected a First Amendment challenge to the application of Nevada’s conflict of interest law. A local official who had been censured under the law challenged the law as an impermissible infringement on his First Amendment rights to vote. The ethics enforcement authorities in his state had determined that the local official violated Nevada’s laws when he voted on a matter in which his campaign manager stood to benefit financially. See Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan, ___ U.S. ___ (June 13, 2011).

In analyzing the First Amendment challenge, the Court noted that conflict of interest rules (restrictions on voting when one has a personal interest in a matter) date back to 1879 in Congress. See Slip Op at 4-8. This was one basis for the Court’s decision – the longstanding recognition that conflict of interest restrictions can co-exist with free expression protections.

Another basis for the Court’s decision related to the nature of a legislator’s vote. The Court noted that the right to vote as an elected representative is “not personal to the legislator, but belongs to the people …” See Slip Op. at 8. The Court observed “[t]he legislator casts his vote ‘as trustee for his constituents, not as a prerogative of personal power.'”Id. (quoting Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, 821 (1997)). Thus, restrictions on an elected official’s vote did not impinge on the elected official’s right to free expression.

Details on the Court’s decision and a link to the decision itself are posted online.