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Judge sides with Lombardo on conservation agency appointment


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

A Nevada district judge has sided with Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo over a recent controversial appointment that prompted a lawsuit from a conservation group.

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity and a former state employee challenged the appointment of former Republican state Sen. James Settelmeyer as director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Opponents argued Settelmeyer should be removed from office, because his appointment violated the state constitution, which bars legislators from being appointed to any paid state position if the legislature voted to increase the salary of that position during their term. Settelmeyer served in the legislature when lawmakers voted to increase the salary of the conservation agency’s director in 2021. 

But on Wednesday, District Judge James Wilson ruled the compensation increase in question — a 1% cost of living adjustment also given to hundreds of other state employees — does not qualify as a salary increase under the Emoluments Clause, and upheld the validity of Settelmeyer’s appointment.

In his ruling, Wilson concluded that the constitutional clause on compensation strictly applies “to salary as a general matter.” Wilson also argued that the cost of living adjustment implemented by the Legislature was below the state inflation rate, and did not “increase” the role’s salary or emolument.

“The Nevada Constitution’s drafters did not intend for the Emoluments Clause to apply to across the board COLAs,” wrote Wilson in his conclusion.

The purpose of the salary provision in the Nevada Constitution is to prevent legislators from financially benefiting from their own legislative action, according to Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office, which defended Lombardo’s appointment of Settelmeyer.

During Settelmeyer’s time as a Nevada state senator, the salary for the Director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources increased multiple times, with the last two increases occurring during Settelmeyer’s third and final term in office, a fact the district judge acknowledged. Less than two months later, Settelmeyer was appointed the director of the agency by Lombardo.

However, Wilson argued that an across-the-board cost of living adjustment does not fall within the state constitution’s written purpose of preventing self-enrichment by elected officials.

“A legislator is not going to undertake a scheme to enact a marginal, across-the-board pay raise merely because he hopes to be appointed to a certain position later,” Wilson wrote in his ruling.

The lawsuit against Settelmeyer by the Center was rooted in his actions on conservation legislation during his time in office, including his votes against climate legislation, public lands protections, protecting water, and against increasing the budget of the agency he now runs.

“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling and are currently evaluating our options,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Whatever happens next, we will continue to hold this administration accountable for following the law and stewarding Nevada’s precious environment.”

Nevada Current
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