Judge rules recall efforts targeting state senators dead; possible appeal uncertain
Efforts to recall two Democratic state senators are officially dead — but how they died could have implications on an effort to resuscitate them through a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court.
District Court Judge Jerry Wiese ruled Wednesday that recall petitions against state Senators Joyce Woodhouse and Nicole Cannizzaro failed to qualify for a special election, driving a potentially final stake into the heart of a nine-month long effort to oust the two Democrats after they won narrow elections in 2016.
The final fate of the recalls wasn’t disputed during the nearly 30 minute-long hearing, given Wiese’s ruling last month that a critical bloc of signature withdrawals submitted after the recall petitions were turned in were constitutional.
But the final count of the signatures on those petitions, especially the petition targeting Woodhouse, could be crucial if the recall backers appeal Wiese’s ruling on the constitutionality of the withdrawn signatures to the state’s Supreme Court.
That issue dominated the hearing Wednesday, spurred by Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria’s submission of a revised total of signatures earlier in April showing both recalls failed to qualify, and another revision earlier this week after a recall organizer questioned several of the signatures ruled invalid.
Nevada law requires recalls to obtain the signatures of 25 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the last election of the targeted office-holder within a 90 day period. Signatures are then reviewed and processed by state and local election officials, who remove invalid signatures to determine whether the gathered signatures meet the minimum threshold.
Wiese at the outset of the hearing told attorneys for both parties that he was “frustrated” with the varying numbers of signatures reported by election officials, and raised the idea of holding an evidentiary hearing to determine the actual number of valid signatures, given the wide gulf between an earlier statistical sample of the signatures and the full count he ordered last month.
“All I keep getting are soft numbers that seem to keep changing every time someone asks for it to be changed,” he said. “I don’t know how we can have confidence in a number when it constantly changes.”
Mary-Ann Miller, the Clark County attorney representing Gloria, said the elections office had done the best job they could have with various difficult-to-read signatures, and had filed the amended signature count this week as a “courtesy” to the recall groups.
“Signatures are one of the most difficult things to read,” she said. “Our state doesn’t have any regulations governing signatures, but they trust that job to the registrar of voters. The registrar of voters did an excellent job in this case, having their staff review, check, and double-check their signatures to the best of their ability.”
She said that adding additional valid signatures would complicate the process further, as election officials would need to go back and check for any duplicate signatures and would also need to reassess withdrawal petitions deemed invalid to see if they match up with the new group of valid signatures.
Dan Stewart, the attorney representing the recall groups, said the groups had filed a supplemental declaration because both were surprised that the April signature total found neither petition had enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, whereas the statistical sampling done beforehand found that the Woodhouse recall petition would have qualified.
“We basically had an undisputed matter become disputed ten days before this hearing,” he said.
Wiese ultimately said he would accept the signature totals submitted to the court on April 6, meaning the Woodhouse petition was 196 short of qualifying at 14,216 valid signatures and the petition targeting Cannizzaro had 14,469 signatures, falling 506 short of qualifying. He said the final order would mention the disputed invalid signatures.
Stewart said he didn’t know whether they would file an appeal of the decision to the state Supreme Court, but predicted that even if an appeal went in favor of a recall, a special election wouldn’t happen until late 2018 or early 2019.
“Without question, lots of things would have to break right to just have an election, much less win one,” he said.
Backers of the recall effort have 30 days to file an appeal after a written order in the case is filed by the judge.
Supporters of the recall efforts have largely avoided the media spotlight, though campaign finance reports showed that the Republican State Leadership Committee was bankrolling the effort. Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison argued the initial recall case in his private capacity as an attorney, and state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson has been a vocal supporter of the efforts.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Woodhouse and Cannizzaro said they were relieved that the “baseless” recall efforts had failed, and promised to bring forward legislation during the 2019 legislative session dealing with various issues they identified with the recall process itself, including requiring grounds to bring a recall petition forward.
“It becomes increasingly difficult when you have to constantly deal with the undermining of democratic processes to be a voice for your constituents and to work on the things that are important to them,” Cannizzaro said.
Although the petition targeting Woodhouse was the closest to be confirmed, the Democratic senator said she wasn’t worried about it potentially qualifying in the future.
“I’m not going to worry about that. I believe this judge, and I know he rendered a decision that he believes in,” she said. “They have the right to appeal if they want to go that direction, but as Senator Cannizzaro said, we have work to do.”