September marked the fiftieth anniversary of a big event. The event led to something we largely take for granted. But it was the result of a big fight, and the fighting continues to the present.
On September 23, 1965, a panel of three federal judges told Nevadans that they had to clean up their act. The case was Dungan v. Sawyer. Namely, the way they put together their legislature was unconstitutional. Interestingly, the panel included Nevada’s two federal judges, Roger D. Foley of Las Vegas and Bruce Thompson of Reno. Both of them had grown up in Nevada and knew a lot of the legislators involved. The third judge, Stanley Barnes, was an Eisenhower appointee from the Ninth Circuit and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
They were acting in response to some decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The most important one was Reynolds v. Sims, decided in 1964. The high court held that state legislatures had to be apportioned in keeping with state populations. Otherwise, they were violating the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that states have a republican form of government. This meant Nevada’s system had to go.
For half a century, Nevada had had what was called the little federal plan. It worked like this. The assembly was based roughly on population, like the U.S. House of Representatives. But the state senate was modeled on the U.S. Senate, where each state has two members. In Nevada, each of the 17 counties had a state senator. Clark County had as many as Eureka County although Clark County had—no kidding—166 times as many residents as Eureka County. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown that out.
So, two Clark County residents went to federal court. Flora Dungan was a longtime political activist who had just served in the Assembly. Clare W. Woodbury was a longtime Las Vegas doctor and school board member. They sued Governor Grant Sawyer, who really had nothing to do with it, but he was the one with the power to call a special session of the legislature.
Ultimately, that’s what Sawyer did in response to the decision by Judges Barnes, Foley, and Thompson. It wasn’t a happy gathering. In their legislative newsletter, the League of Women Voters of Nevada said it featured a lot of “travail, frustration, boredom, clowning, hard work, hot anger, honest compromise, barely concealed self-interest, enlightened statesmanship and even tears.” One rural legislator warned that with the change, the “hippies, beatniks and communists” in Las Vegas would take over the state.
The judges weren’t entirely happy, either. Their opinion stated that there was still more variation between population and representation than they would have liked. They found rural Nevada to be overrepresented by nearly 15 percent and Clark County still underrepresented by 11 percent. But the judges concluded that “Nevada’s malapportioned, rural-dominated legislature” had “given birth to a plan which this Court cannot say is constitutionally impermissive. While it is quite apparent to the Court that the rural-dominated Legislature gave up no more than it believed it must, this, in itself, does not warrant disapproval. It matters not that the Legislature may have skated upon thin ice and approached dangerously close to the edge of unconstitutional waters.” As a result, about 40 percent of the next legislature would consist of Clark County members, and that percentage has grown with southern Nevada’s population. As for that takeover by southern Nevada? Well, THAT’S debatable.
Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities
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