Nevada Law: A History Lesson

SupremecourtofnevadaJohn Adams talked of the need for “a government of laws, and not of men,” while Frank Zappa called the United States “a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced.” While Adams was the greater founding father, Zappa had a point: Who we are and what we think shapes our laws, and this is particularly true within each of our 50 states. Here are the seven most important people and events that have shaped Nevada law:

The Nevada Constitutional Convention

Delegates met in Carson City in the summer of 1864 and wrote the document that governs us—a document that’s more detailed about individual liberties than the U.S. Constitution. How it divides power between the three governmental branches means legislators only meet every two years and don’t confirm the governor’s appointments, setting in motion not only Nevada’s antiquated budgeting process, but also our libertarian approach to so many issues. Take note, Cliven Bundy: The Nevada Constitution also disclaims any right to the federal land that the U.S. government already owned, having acquired this area in the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War—meaning it never was Nevada’s land. Besides thereby depriving Nevada of much of a tax base, our constitution gave the mining industry a tax break that lives on to this day.

Felice Cohn

The first Nevada-born woman (1878 in Carson City) to practice law here, she served as an assistant U.S. attorney, was a leading advocate for women’s suffrage and a bankruptcy court referee. She also was one of the first women in the U.S. admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. She helped found the Nevada Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, and was a longtime lobbyist on behalf of children’s and women’s rights. Women attorneys—indeed, a lot of Nevadans, period—stand on her shoulders.

The Foley Family

Thomas Foley was the first to arrive, landing in Goldfield in 1906. His son Roger T. moved to Las Vegas to stay in 1928, became a district judge and then a federal judge, and heard, among other cases, Greenspun v. McCarran, in which Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun sued U.S. Senator Pat McCarran—and almost every hotel-casino owner in town—for conspiring to deprive him of advertising because he had criticized McCarran. Foley’s even-handed hearing of the case enabled Greenspun to win a settlement, survive as a publisher and go on to play an important role in Nevada history (see, among other things, the community of Green Valley). Roger Foley’s five sons all became attorneys and politicians, with oldest son Roger D. also becoming a federal judge (George Foley Jr. continues the tradition as a federal magistrate). Roger D. Foley’s famous cases included Baneberry (in which he opened up the federal government to challenges from Nevada Test Site workers who had been victims of radiation exposure) and the Ash Meadows Desert Pupfish, which he protected from developers.

Grant Sawyer and Bob Faiss

They’re a tag team. As governor, Sawyer pushed for the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, which still deals with civil rights cases. He also revolutionized gaming regulation in the state with, among other things, the Black Book, barring certain unsavory characters from entering casinos. Entrants such as John Marshall and Tony Spilotro challenged the Black Book’s constitutionality, to no avail. After leaving office, Sawyer co-founded a major law firm whose specialties included representing corporations that were just beginning to enter Nevada gaming. Of equal importance was Faiss, who was one of Sawyer’s aides as governor and also one of his law partners. Faiss wrote the original guidebook for the Nevada Gaming Commission and shaped many of the laws governing gaming in the state and, eventually, in other jurisdictions.

MGM Grand Hotel Fire

The November 21, 1980, fire killed 85 and injured more than 700. Its legal significance? In addition to many resulting lawsuits—2,000 plaintiffs and several hundred defendants—that led to the passage of laws to make Nevada buildings safer (sprinkler systems), the fire resulted in the influx of an army of lawyers who greatly expanded the legal profession here. How the MGM fire lawsuits were handled also influenced subsequent large-scale trials involving such topics as the effects of tobacco and breast implants.

Harry Claiborne

A legendary Las Vegas attorney, Claiborne became a U.S. district judge in 1978. Federal officials almost immediately targeted him, believing him to be crooked mainly because of his being a great defense attorney who also represented Horseshoe owner Benny Binion. The feds gave immunity to brothel owner Joe Conforte, who lied under oath about bribing Claiborne. Those charges didn’t stick, but the investigations found that Claiborne screwed up his taxes, and in 1986, he wound up becoming the third federal judge impeached, convicted and removed from office since the Civil War (and the first in 50 years). The controversy over Clairborne’s case roiled Southern Nevada and raises questions to this day about the area’s image and the federal government’s dealings with Las Vegas.

The Nevada Supreme Court

Not the current seven justices, but the group in the 1980s and 1990s who publicly fought over everything from political campaigns to an investigation into the actions of a Washoe County district court judge. Their fights—including demanding investigations into who leaked information, plus trying to block investigations and interfering in cases—were a national embarrassment for the legal profession. Only in the last few years has the state high court’s reputation recovered.

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