Lawsuit seeks signature extension for ballot question requiring parental notification for under-18 abortions

Backers of a proposed ballot initiative that would require parental notification for abortions performed on a minor are suing Nevada election officials for an extension of time to gather needed signatures.

Attorneys for “Protect Our Girls,” the political action committee formed to support the proposed initiative, filed the lawsuit in federal District Court earlier this month seeking a court-ordered extension to the Nov. 18 deadline for the group to turn in enough signatures to qualify the initiative.

The initiative was originally filed in March and is backed by leaders of the anti-abortion group Nevada Right to Life. It would address issues with a 1985 state law that required parental notification, but was never enforced after being blocked by a federal court because of issues with the judicial bypass procedure.

Nevada law requires statutory initiatives to garner signatures equivalent to 10 percent of votes cast in the preceding election (97,598 valid signatures statewide for the current cycle). If enough signatures are deemed valid, the petition would move to the 2021 Legislature, where lawmakers have a 40-day window to approve, deny or take no action on the petition. If they reject the petition or take no action, it would then move to the 2022 general election ballot.

But the COVID-19 pandemic related shutdown and ongoing limitations on public gatherings make it “extremely difficult” for the group to gather signatures through the normal petition-gathering process, attorneys for the initiative said. Attorneys for the group said they petitioned the secretary of state’s office for an extension but were denied in early September, prompting the lawsuit.

“More time can—and must be—allotted to collect signatures to ensure Plaintiffs’ right to engage in political speech is sufficiently protected and doing so will not compromise the government’s interest in ensuring that only verified initiatives are included on the ballot,” attorneys for the group wrote in the filing.

The complaint asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order against the state law setting the Nov. 18 deadline for signature-gathering, and to extend the deadline for signature gathering for at least the period of time that the state’s stay-at-home order remains in place.

Representatives from Nevada Right to Life and the O’Mara Law Firm — which is representing the initiative in court — did not return calls requesting comment on the lawsuit.

There is some recent precedent for judicial-ordered extensions of signature-gathering deadlines related to ballot measures. In May, District Court Judge Miranda Du ordered the state to add several weeks to a signature deadline for backers of an independent redistricting commission ballot question (which nonetheless ultimately fell short of qualifying).

The proposed initiative would explicitly prohibit a physician from performing an abortion on an unmarried and unemancipated minor under the age of 18 without first notifying the individual’s custodial parent or guardian at least 48 hours before the procedure. The initiative would require the physician or an agent either directly notify custodial parents or through certified mail.

It would also create a legal procedure in which a minor can petition a District Court to avoid notifying a custodial parent or guardian, with various confidentiality provisions including the ability to use a fictitious name and to keep proceedings confidential. It also sets a timeline for hearings and decisions, including a maximum window of three judicial days after a petition is filed to hold a hearing, with an order required within the next day.

Additionally, it would create a misdemeanor penalty for anyone who “knowingly” performs an abortion on a minor without notifying a parent or guardian.

According to campaign finance records, the “Protect Our Girls” PAC has raised $9,325 since it was formed in March and the last reporting deadline of June 30. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, at least 37 states have some form of parental consent or notification requirement in law prior to a minor receiving an abortion, but several have been enjoined by courts or are otherwise not enforced.

Judge extends signature-gathering deadline for proposed redistricting commission ballot question

A hand arranging "I voted" stickers on a table

An effort to place a ballot question creating an independent redistricting commission on the 2020 ballot will have a second chance at life after a federal judge agreed to extend a June deadline to turn in signatures for the petition under “unique factual circumstances” brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an order released on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du partially granted the request of Fair Maps Nevada to extend the deadline to collect signatures for the petition, which needs to garner 97,598 signatures by June 24 to make it on to the ballot. Attorneys for the group previously said it had collected around 10,000 signatures before Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential business shutdowns and other social distancing directives in mid-March.

Du noted that the order would not automatically qualify the measure for the ballot, where it must pass twice in subsequent elections to become part of the state Constitution. But she said not extending the deadline, especially in light of the pandemic, would violate the group’s constitutional rights which she said were not outweighed by any additional or expedited work that it would require of county or state election officials. 

“As a matter of common sense, Plaintiffs will not be able to get their initiative on the ballot in November without an extension,” she wrote in the order. “And they may not even with an extension. But because they certainly will not get their initiative on the ballot without an extension, they would be irreparably harmed if the Court did not issue a preliminary injunction here.”

Under the order, the June 24 deadline (established under state law) is considered null and instead reverts to the constitutional deadline of 90 days before a general election, which is August 5. The parties in the case could also agree to a “reasonable accommodation” on an extension.

She wrote in a footnote that if it were up to her, an extension corresponding to the precise length of time the stay-at-home order has been in effect “seems the most reasonable.”

But Du did not allow the group’s other request: to require the secretary of state’s office to accept electronic signatures as valid for the petition, as opposed to those gathered in-person. 

Du wrote that it would “take some time” to set up and roll out a process for signature collection and verification, and that the purpose and construction of the state’s laws on requiring in-person signatures were “narrowly tailored” to prevent voter fraud and thus survived legal scrutiny.

Regardless, the order breathes new life into the effort to amend the state’s historical redistricting process, which involves the drawing of congressional and legislative district maps and is typically left up to the Legislature. 

The Fair Maps Nevada group filed its initial paperwork to qualify a change to the redistricting process in November 2019, led by organizations including the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice. The ballot question would create a seven-member redistricting commission — appointed by members of the Legislature and not allowed to have prior political experience or have been a lobbyist — charged with drawing district map boundaries. 

Because it was filed as a constitutional amendment, backers needed to collect 97,598 signatures by June 24 to place the measure on the ballot, and then have it pass in two election cycles to become part of the state’s Constitution. The initiative would require approval of the new maps to come no later than July of 2023, and in future census cycles no more than 180 days after the release of census data.

But the group filed the federal lawsuit in early May asking a federal court to extend that June 24 deadline by at least six weeks, as traditional signature-gathering methods have been all but halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although rural and urban county clerks and election officials opposed extending the deadline over process concerns, Du wrote that in this case, the constitutional violation of the group’s rights outweighed any severe inconvenience” facing election officials.

“The Court does not find severe inconvenience a compelling government interest given these extraordinary circumstances,” she wrote.

Fair Maps Nevada order by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Fair Maps Nevada order by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Judge again blocks conservative group’s effort to stop mail-only primary election

sign pointing to voting location

A federal District Court judge has again blocked a lawsuit filed by a conservative vote-monitoring group asking to effectively cancel the state’s mostly mail primary election.

In an order released Wednesday evening, Judge Miranda Du denied the amended request by Texas-based True the Vote and several Nevada voters to block the state’s election plan over fears of voter fraud, as well as because of an agreement between Democratic groups and Clark County election officials to mail ballots to inactive voters.

In her order, Du wrote that the group’s amended complaint “glaringly repackages old arguments” and failed to address most if not all of the issues she previously identified in her initial ruling denying the group’s request, including a lack of standing and that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office was not violating any constitutional rights by changing the election structure to lessen spread of COVID-19.

She also wrote that the new claims and articles cited by the group — plaintiffs alleged mailing ballots to inactive voters in Clark County \ could increase voter fraud — were “simply insufficient” to establish any kind of standing that potentially increased fraudulent votes warranted upending the entire election process.

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs’ second request for preliminary injunctive relief is therefore unreasonable and inequitable in seeking to undo the votes already casted by Nevadans and would result in squandering the state’s investment for the sake of an unestablished specter of voter fraud,” she wrote in the order.

Additionally, Du wrote in the order that the group’s request to not count already mailed-in ballots and require either in-person voting or a request for a mail ballot at this late point would cause even more problems and confusion with the election process. Already, some 119,000 voters in Clark County have returned their mail ballots, and an additional 40,000 ballots have been turned in to Washoe County election officials.

“Even if Plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction request was on firmer grounds, the Court cannot foresee any viable manner of undoing the Plan or stopping its further implementation without increasing the risks to the health and safety of Nevadans and putting the integrity of the election at risk—particularly without sufficient time to prepare an adequate alternative,” she wrote.

Attorneys for the True the Vote group, several Nevada voters and Nevada Right to Life filed their initial lawsuit in late April, claiming the planned mail-only election (with certain opportunities to turn in ballots in person) would “all but ensure an election replete with ballot fraud.” Cegavske’s office announced plans for a nearly all-mail primary election back in March as a way to lessen the risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19.

Their claims were rejected by Du later in April, who wrote that the state’s interest in “protecting the health and safety of Nevada’s voters and to safeguard the voting franchise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic far outweigh any burden on Plaintiffs’ right to vote,” including “speculative” claims of voter fraud.

But the group filed an amended complaint in mid-May, reiterating many of the complaints of potential voter fraud while also challenging an agreement struck between Clark County election officials and Democratic groups to mail ballots to inactive voters, which has been heavily criticized by state and national Republicans.

The term “inactive voter” is used to refer to any voter who doesn’t return an address confirmation card from election officials, typically a person who has moved or changed mailing addresses. Inactive voters are still allowed to vote, but their registration is cancelled if they skip two federal elections over a four-year period while also not responding to state or county election officials.

In her order, Du wrote that the group’s concerns with Clark County’s plans for inactive voters, as well as sending deputized election officials to pick up ballots, failed to identify actual constitutional violations. 

“Clark County’s Plan may make it easier or more convenient to vote in Clark County, but does not have any adverse effects on the ability of voters in other counties to vote,” she wrote in the order. “Plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on their claim of an Equal Protection violation where they provide no evidence—and cannot provide any—that the (Clark County) Plan makes it harder for voters in other counties to vote.”

Du also took issue with the nine-day turnaround time between her first order and the group filing its amended complaint, saying they “unreasonably delayed” seeking injunctive relief and presented no arguments that couldn’t have been included in their initial complaint.

“Plaintiffs surely have not acted with the alacrity that they claim this case necessitates,” she wrote.

Paher v Nevada order by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Paher v Nevada order by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Fate of redistricting commission ballot question may depend on judge’s ruling on electronic signatures, deadline extension

The fate of a proposed ballot question creating an independent redistricting commission is now in the hands of a federal judge, who is being asked by proponents to order the state to extend a signature-gathering deadline and allow for electronic signature-gathering.

Attorneys for Fair Maps Nevada, the group backing the ballot question, argued in federal court on Tuesday that District Court Judge Miranda Du should order Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office to offer those alternatives given that the normal playbook for gathering signatures has been thrown out the window given the strict social distancing and stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But their requests drew a bevy of opponents, including attorneys for Cegavske, rural and urban election clerks, the Nevada Resort Association and a politically connected Las Vegas pastor who is suing the ballot question in state court. They raised a host of concerns and issues with the requests, including procedural concerns for printing and mailing ballots on time amid a possibly extended deadline and whether the injury suffered by the group warranted the extreme step of federal court intervention.

Du did not immediately issue a ruling, but said an order would likely be published sometime next week.

The case could have aftershocks affecting more than just the redistricting ballot question — it could also make it much easier for other pending or future ballot measures to qualify for the ballot, especially if deadlines are extended or electronic signatures are allowed. There are at least five other statutory or constitutional amendment petitions pending that have been filed with state election officials this election cycle.

The path to court began in November 2019, when organizations including the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice filed the ballot question to create a seven-member redistricting commission charged with drawing legislative and congressional map boundaries. 

The ballot initiative was filed as a constitutional amendment, meaning that backers need to collect 97,598 signatures by June 24 to place the measure on the ballot, and then have it pass in two election cycles to become part of the state’s Constitution.

Although the ballot question’s description on signature-gathering forms has been challenged multiple times (and is still pending before the Nevada Supreme Court), Fair Maps Nevada attorney Adam Hosmer-Henner said the group had collected around 10,000 signatures by mid-March when Gov. Steve Sisolak and other leaders around the country began ordering business closures and issuing stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Hosmer-Henner said that state and county election officials were correct in taking steps to mitigate potential future COVID-19 infections by ordering a mail-only primary election, but that keeping the same requirements in place for signature gathering went against those public health efforts without offering a viable alternative.

“What the state is enforcing is in light of a public health emergency, an in-person signature requirement that is the opposite of what they chose to do in an all mail primary, which was trying to encourage people to stay apart,” he said. “The requirement will be greater and the burden will be greater on a voter who wishes to sign in support of a petition that actually would be to vote in favor of that petition,” he said.

But attorneys for the state said that the group was asking Cegavske’s office to take action beyond what her outlined rules and responsibilities are in existing state law regarding the collection of signatures for ballot questions, including the prohibition on electronic signatures.

“We're asking the secretary here to modify the law in some way that she doesn't have the power to do,” deputy Solicitor General Gregory Zunino said, representing the secretary of state’s office. “And that's why this case is problematic. She’s being used as a proxy here.”

Kevin Benson, an attorney representing a Las Vegas pastor who sued in state court over the ballot question’s proposed language on petition signing forms, also spoke after his client and the Nevada Resort Association were allowed to intervene in the case.

Benson said that the Fair Maps Nevada group appeared to be far behind in its signature-gathering given the number it had collected by mid-March, and that it had other opportunities or avenues to pursue in getting signatures for the petition, even amid the pandemic.

“The declaration is quite vague about what efforts they made to get a professional signature gathering firm online and activated,” he said. “So, in essence, what this comes down to is the plaintiffs are arguing that the pandemic excused them from even trying to circulate the petition, and their evidence shows that in fact they made no effort.”

Benson also said that Fair Maps Nevada had not presented any kind of plan as to how electronic signature verification would work; a contrast to other states where groups seeking to place petitions on the ballot have worked to get a potential system in place before turning to the courts.

Many states have taken steps to allow for electronic signature gathering for ballot petitions during the pandemic. Massachusetts agreed to allow electronic signature gathering for ballot questions in April, while Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order on Sunday authorizing the gathering of electronic signatures. A federal judge in Ohio on Wednesday ordered the state to allow for electronic signatures on ballot petitions.

Resort Association moves to get involved in court fight over independent redistricting commission ballot question

The Las Vegas Strip at night

The Nevada Resort Association has filed to intervene and oppose a federal lawsuit seeking more time to collect petition signatures for an independent redistricting commission ballot question.

The politically powerful trade association of the state’s largest casino resort companies filed to intervene in the lawsuit last week, along with a politically connected Las Vegas pastor who is actively suing over the ballot question’s language in state court.

The motion to intervene doesn’t challenge the merits of the ballot question supported by Fair Maps Nevada, which seeks to adopt a constitutional amendment moving the responsibility for Nevada’s once-a-decade redistricting process from the Legislature to an independent, bipartisan commission.

Instead, the group is asking to intervene in the lawsuit because it opposes allowing electronic signatures and an extension of the signature-collecting deadline; two things that it says would harm its ability to challenge other proposed initiatives — including one seeking to raise the gaming tax — and disregard protections in state law.

“The NRA and its members will be directly and adversely affected if an initiative petition is permitted to qualify for the ballot, despite the fact that it does not comply with Nevada law because, for example, signatures are turned in late, or it contains fraudulent signatures,” Nevada Resorts Association head Virginia Valentine said in court documents. “The NRA and its members would be harmed because they would have to expend resources in a campaign that, if the law were followed, would never have occurred.”

The proposed ballot question was first introduced in November 2019, when the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice filed initial paperwork with the secretary of state’s office. Approval of the initiative would create a seven-member redistricting commission with the power to draw legislative and congressional maps, but wouldn’t come online until 2023.

That’s because Nevada law requires any constitutional amendment to be passed by voters in two subsequent elections, meaning the soonest the amendment and new commission could get to work would be in 2023 — two years after the Legislature is scheduled to approve new electoral maps following results of the 2020 federal Census.

But the measure was almost immediately challenged by a politically connected Las Vegas pastor, Rev. Leonard Jackson, who soon after filed a lawsuit challenging the “Description of Effect” listed on all petition signing forms. That matter is still pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, Fair Maps Nevada filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking both the ability to collect signatures electronically and pushing back the deadline to turn in signatures, stating that emergency shutdown orders made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic should afford them more flexibility in signature gathering efforts. In order to qualify, backers of the measure need to collect at least 97,598 signatures by June 24.

In their motion to intervene in the federal case, attorneys for the resort association and Jackson wrote that allowing electronic signature collection or an extended deadline to gather signatures “would effectively gut the safeguards in Nevada law” protecting against fraud.

“If the Plaintiffs are permitted to electronically gather signatures, this would directly contravene clear requirements of Nevada law,” they wrote in the filing. “It would open the door to exactly the kind of ‘massive fraud’ that the statutes were intended to prevent.”

The resort association filed a lawsuit in February challenging the language used in a proposed initiative by the Clark County Education Association to raise the state’s gaming tax to help fund K-12 education. That lawsuit is also still pending in the Nevada Supreme Court.

In a response filed on Tuesday, attorneys for Fair Maps Nevada said the court should reject the motion to intervene for both parties, saying it would result in “additional and unnecessary parties reiterating arguments made by the named defendants.”

For the resort association, the attorneys wrote that the group did not have standing to intervene because it was opposing a statutory, as opposed to constitutional, initiative in state court, which operate on different timeframes.

“There will be two years between submission of the Gaming Tax Initiative for verification and the general election in connection with which it will appear on the ballot,” they wrote. “Therefore, even if there is a protectable interest in litigating a verification challenge to completion, that interest will not be subject to any shortened time period for resolution.”

A telephonic hearing has been set for Thursday at 10 a.m. in Judge Miranda Du’s courtroom.

gov.uscourts.nvd.143189.15.0_2 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

gov.uscourts.nvd.143189.15.0_2 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Conservative group again asks federal court to block mail-only election plan, says no established link between in-person voting and COVID-19 exposure

A right-wing advocacy group is filing another legal challenge against Nevada’s planned mail-only primary election, asking a federal judge to block the election plan over fears of vote fraud.

True the Vote, a Texas-based voting monitoring group, filed an amended complaint in federal court on Wednesday that now challenges several aspects of an agreement made between state and national Democratic groups and Clark County election officials to mail ballots to inactive voters and several other concessions.

Although the group’s previous lawsuit seeking to block the mail-only election (with several options for in-person ballot drop offs) was blocked by a federal judge, the amended complaint now cites the new election plan agreed to by Clark County as additional violations of voting rights afforded plaintiffs in the case — several Nevada voters and the anti-abortion group Nevada Right to Life. 

“The rule of law may not be ignored, even amidst diminishing COVID-19 concerns,” attorneys wrote in the complaint. “To the extent measures need to be taken to protect public health, those may not alter the legislative mandate.”

The complaint echoes many of the previously rejected arguments made by the organization as to why Nevada’s planned primary election process violates constitutional norms and laws designed to protect the rights of voters. It also cites a variety of news stories showing issues with the sudden ramp-up of mail ballots, and claims that there is “no established causal link between in-person voting and the contracting of COVID.”

“Expanding mail balloting is unnecessary to combat COVID-19,” they wrote. “The same social distancing and good hygiene practices—which are effective for preventing the spread of the virus when going out for essential services, like grocery shopping and other essential services—are also an effective way to prevent the spread of the virus for in-person voting.”

Specifically, attorneys for the group are asking the federal court to declare the plan invalid and require election officials tell every registered voter by telephone and mail that mailed ballots will not be counted as valid if returned. Already, some 44,500 ballots have been cast by mail in Clark County.

Federal District Court Judge Miranda Du set a hearing on the motion for next Friday (May 22), but said it may be vacated if the Court deems it unnecessary after reviewing the briefs.

Amended Complaint Paher v. ... by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Judge rejects conservative group’s attempt to block planned all-mail primary

A federal judge has ruled against a conservative group’s lawsuit that sought to block the state’s planned all-mail primary election in June.

Judge Mirandu Du issued the order on Thursday evening rejecting the request by True the Vote, a Texas-based voting monitoring group, to block the planned all-mail election over concerns of voter fraud, saying the motion lacked standing and that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office was well within its rights to move to an all-mail election in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Court finds that Defendants’ interests in protecting the health and safety of Nevada’s voters and to safeguard the voting franchise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic far outweigh any burden on Plaintiffs’ right to vote, particularly when that burden is premised on a speculative claim of voter fraud resulting in dilution of votes,” Du wrote in the order.

True the Vote filed the lawsuit on April 21 on behalf of several Nevada voters challenging the state’s plans to switch to an all-mail election, citing concerns that mail-only voting violated state law and would lead to an increase in voter fraud. 

In terms of legal standing, Du wrote that the group’s argument was “difficult to track and fails to even minimally meet the first standing prong.”

“The theory of Plaintiffs’ case, and which is the only alleged injury driving all of their claims, is that the Plan will lead to an increase in illegal votes thereby harming them as rightful voters by diluting their vote,” she wrote in the order. “But Plaintiffs’ purported injury of having their votes diluted due to ostensible election fraud may be conceivably raised by any Nevada voter. Such claimed injury therefore does not satisfy the requirement that Plaintiffs must state a concrete and particularized injury.”

Du also wrote that the assertion of an all-mail election more susceptible to voting fraud “seems unlikely” given the steps taken by the secretary of state’s office to ensure election integrity. She also dismissed all claims and alleged state law violations made by the organization, saying that many of them were either non applicable or were already allowed under Nevada’s election law.

Du also ruled that issuing an injunction would likely cause even more harm and confusion against the state’s planned election process, and that the plan to “protect the public during a public health crisis tips the scale of equity in favor” of the secretary of state’s office.

“It is clear that as triggered by the uncertainties of COVID-19, the public’s interests align with the Plan’s all-mail election provisions,” Du wrote in the order.

The lawsuit isn’t the only legal action filed against the planned all-mail election; several state and national groups affiliated with the Democratic Party filed a separate lawsuit earlier this month seeking additional in-person voting locations and the suspension of several election laws, including a prohibition on “ballot harvesting” or allowing non-family members to collect and turn in absentee ballots.

Paher v. Cegavske Injuction... by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Paher v. Cegavske Injuction... by Riley Snyder on Scribd

With public meetings canceled, federal, state agencies offer varying guidances for weighing in on environmental issues

In late March, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requesting that the agency delay a public comment period for a controversial and complicated project to do maintenance on the Truckee Canal, a manmade diversion off the Truckee River. 

In the letter, the tribe asked to reschedule public workshops and government-to-goverment consultation with the agency, responsible for managing dams and diversions across the West.

But the agency denied the request.

In a letter responding to the tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Area Manager, Terri Edwards, declined to push back the April 20 public comment period. She noted that the federal agency had instead created an opportunity for virtual public comment to weigh in on an environmental analysis for the Truckee Canal project and offered to conduct a consultation remotely.

“We have told Reclamation numerous times since that letter that we don’t think that a video conference or a telephone conference with the council would suffice under their obligation to hold government-to-government consultation,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe.

The tribe was hardly the only party that objected to the bureau’s decision. Officials with the City of Fernley also wanted Reclamation to push back the comment deadline due to the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19: limiting public meetings and encouraging residents to stay at home. When Reclamation denied the requests, Fernley sued in federal court.

“Non-essential governmental and legal proceedings of all types have been placed on hold, and deadlines have been tolled,” lawyers for Fernley wrote on April 9. “Despite this, and the fact other federal agencies have already granted COVID-19 extensions for public comment periods, Reclamation denied numerous requests to extend its April 20, 2020, deadline…”

The lawsuit highlights an issue that has frustrated everyone from local municipalities to tribes and environmental groups. What should state and federal agencies, responsible for collecting public comments on major decisions, do when they can no longer convene the public in person? Even if the public can comment online, is it a sufficient alternative during a public health crisis?

State and federal agencies have offered mixed messages on how they intend to move forward. But in most cases, agencies are approaching the issue on a case-by-case basis. 

The public comment process is a key part of the process for analyzing the environmental impacts of actions, from permitting mines to leasing oil and gas, on federal land. With federal land comprising about 85 percent of the state, many of these decisions are closely watched.

“Public comment periods are an incredibly important tool for ensuring that the public has a role in making federal decisions with significant environmental, economic, and cultural impacts,”Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen wrote to the Department of Interior on April 3. 

In the letter, the senators requested that the agency, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, extend open public comment periods indefinitely and postpone future public comment periods.

But the department did not issue any overarching policy. Instead, 10 days later, it offered guidance for bureaus within the department, including on virtual public comment meetings. 

As Reclamation moves forward with the canal project, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 65 percent of the state’s land, is looking at it on a “case-by-case basis.”

“Our actions, such as comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for appropriate public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” said Chris Rose, a spokesman for the state office, noting that the BLM was taking comment through mail or email. 

Agencies often have to walk a fine line. If they do not provide ample opportunity for the public to  comment on governmental action and permitting, they could face litigation to undo a decision.

And the issues are not only on the federal level. 

On April 10, three groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity — wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak asking the governor to cease public comment periods for mines and suspend permitting during the COVID-19 process. 

“Amid this global crisis, permitting mines has continued unhindered despite the fact that the public can not be reasonably expected to engage in ongoing public comment periods,” the groups wrote in a letter. “Many who would normally engage in commenting are in crisis as infection rates rise, and we reach record levels of unemployment.”

In the letter, the groups identified another issue that hampers the ability of groups, especially in rural communities, to weigh in on governmental decisions: limited access to the internet. 

Fernley raised a similar issue in its lawsuit over public comment for the Truckee Canal project. It argued that domestic well owners, with limited access to the internet, might be shut out from the process. But the agency argued in court filings that in-person meetings were not mandatory. 

And on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du agreed.

Du dismissed the case and wrote in her order that “contrary to Fernley’s argument, the duties it seeks to impose on Reclamation are discretionary, rather than mandatory.” 

With public meetings canceled, federal, state agencies offer varying guidances for weighing in on environmental issues

In late March, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requesting that the agency delay a public comment period for a controversial and complicated project to do maintenance on the Truckee Canal, a manmade diversion off the Truckee River. 

In the letter, the tribe asked to reschedule public workshops and government-to-goverment consultation with the agency, responsible for managing dams and diversions across the West.

But the agency denied the request.

In a letter responding to the tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Area Manager, Terri Edwards, declined to push back the April 20 public comment period. She noted that the federal agency had instead created an opportunity for virtual public comment to weigh in on an environmental analysis for the Truckee Canal project and offered to conduct a consultation remotely.

“We have told Reclamation numerous times since that letter that we don’t think that a video conference or a telephone conference with the council would suffice under their obligation to hold government-to-government consultation,” said Chris Mixson, an attorney for the tribe.

The tribe was hardly the only party that objected to the bureau’s decision. Officials with the City of Fernley also wanted Reclamation to push back the comment deadline due to the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19: limiting public meetings and encouraging residents to stay at home. When Reclamation denied the requests, Fernley sued in federal court.

“Non-essential governmental and legal proceedings of all types have been placed on hold, and deadlines have been tolled,” lawyers for Fernley wrote on April 9. “Despite this, and the fact other federal agencies have already granted COVID-19 extensions for public comment periods, Reclamation denied numerous requests to extend its April 20, 2020, deadline…”

The lawsuit highlights an issue that has frustrated everyone from local municipalities to tribes and environmental groups. What should state and federal agencies, responsible for collecting public comments on major decisions do when they can no longer convene the public in person? Even if the public can comment online, is it a sufficient alternative during a public health crisis?

State and federal agencies have offered mixed messages on how they intend to move forward. But in most cases, agencies are approaching the issue on a case-by-case basis. 

The public comment process is a key part of the process for analyzing the environmental impacts of actions, from permitting mines to leasing oil and gas, on federal land. With federal land comprising about 85 percent of the state, many of these decisions are closely watched.

“Public comment periods are an incredibly important tool for ensuring that the public has a role in making federal decisions with significant environmental, economic, and cultural impacts,”Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen wrote to the Department of Interior on April 3. 

In the letter, the senators requested that the agency, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, extend open public comment periods indefinitely and postpone future public comment periods.

But the department did not issue any overarching policy. Instead, 10 days later, it offered guidance for bureaus within the department, including on virtual public comment meetings. 

As Reclamation moves forward with the canal project, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 65 percent of the state’s land, is looking at it on a “case-by-case basis.”

“Our actions, such as comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for appropriate public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” said Chris Rose, a spokesman for the state office, noting that the BLM was taking comment through mail or email. 

Agencies often have to walk a fine line. If they do not provide ample opportunity for the public to  comment on governmental action and permitting, they could face litigation to undo a decision.

And the issues are not only on the federal level. 

On April 10, three groups — the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Great Basin Resource Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity — wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak asking the governor to cease public comment periods for mines and suspend permitting during the COVID-19 process. 

“Amid this global crisis, permitting mines has continued unhindered despite the fact that the public can not be reasonably expected to engage in ongoing public comment periods,” the groups wrote in a letter. “Many who would normally engage in commenting are in crisis as infection rates rise, and we reach record levels of unemployment.”

In the letter, the groups identified another issue that hampers the ability of groups, especially in rural communities, to weigh in on governmental decisions: limited access to the internet. 

Fernley raised a similar issue in its lawsuit over public comment for the Truckee Canal project. It argued that domestic well owners, with limited access to the internet, might be shut out from the process. But the agency argued in court filings that in-person meetings were not mandatory. 

And on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du agreed.

Du dismissed the case and wrote in her order that “contrary to Fernley’s argument, the duties it seeks to impose on Reclamation are discretionary, rather than mandatory.” 

Update: This story was updated on 4/20/20 at 9:57 a.m. to include the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada as a signer of the April 10 letter.

Federal court dismisses lawsuit seeking to end brothel industry

The front entrance to the Chicken Ranch brothel

A lawsuit that aimed to eliminate Nevada’s legal brothels has been dismissed by a federal court judge who rejected the notion that it conflicts with federal laws.

“While the Court empathizes with Plaintiffs for their lived experiences, the Court cannot adjudicate Plaintiffs’ claims because Plaintiffs fail to establish standing to confer jurisdiction upon this Court,” Chief U.S. District Judge Miranda Du wrote in an order filed Tuesday.

Three women who say they were sex trafficked through Nevada filed the lawsuit earlier this year. The lawsuit — which named the state, the Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak as defendants — argued that legalized prostitution in rural counties contradicts two federal laws that criminalize human trafficking across state lines for the purposes of commercial sex acts.

Reno-based attorney Jason Guinasso, who’s representing the plaintiffs, released a statement saying they “strongly disagree” with the ruling and are considering other legal options, including an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“If Nevada did not permit legal prostitution, they  would not have been trafficked to Nevada,” Guinasso wrote. “Nevada’s actions and inactions unavoidably conflict with the federal law and policy established to prevent the exact harms that Plaintiffs assert.”

Developer Lance Gilman, who owns the Mustang Ranch brothel in Sparks, praised the judge’s decision but offered a blistering attack on Guinasso.

“We are extremely pleased that the United States District Court deemed this lawsuit baseless and without merit and, as such, dismissed it,” Gilman said in a statement. “However, we are equally frustrated at the persistent and reckless attempts by Mr. Guinasso to ban Nevada’s historic brothel industry through incendiary allegations that are steeped in moral judgement rather than facts and education. This was a complete waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars and, from the very get go, appears to have been done for political gain rather than the establishment of sound policy."

Gilman concluded his statement by extending an invitation to Guinasso to work with the brothel industry and find solutions that “get women off the streets and out of the hands of predators.”