The Nevada Supreme Court sided with the state Republican Party on Tuesday, ruling that major political party leaders can choose their candidate to run for the state's open U.S. House seat.
In a decision issued late in the day, justices in a 6-1 ruling upheld a lower court order that rejected arguments by Democrats and Secretary of State Ross Miller, who said the Sept. 13 special election should be an open contest.
The ruling is seen as a boon to Mark Amodei, a former state senator who was among 15 Republican contenders vying for the seat. Republicans feared an unbridled ballot would splinter the Republican vote and allow Democrats to claim the seat for the first time since its creation in 1982.
Amodei was endorsed by the state GOP central committee. Democrats have embraced state Treasurer Kate Marshall.
The ruling knocks eight Democrats and 14 Republicans off the ballot, including retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was skipper of the USS Cole when it was attacked by terrorists in Yemen in 2000. Lippold was viewed as the most serious challenge to Amodei.
The election will fill the vacancy created by Republican Dean Heller's appointment to the U.S. Senate.
Nevada has never held a special election, which has contributed to confusion. While the Legislature passed a law in 2003 setting timelines for when a special election would take place, the law also directed the secretary of state - Heller at the time - to adopt regulations on how it would be carried out.
Those regulations were never enacted.
Under the law, Gov. Brian Sandoval could have scheduled the election up to 180 days after Heller's resignation from the House. Sept. 13 falls 127 days after his announcement that Heller would join the Senate.
The court majority determined that while Nevada law is vague on special elections, that statute must be read in conjunction with general election laws that give political parties control to select their nominee when primary elections are not held.
They said state law has always favored "a two-step process," where a person becomes a candidate, followed by placement on a ballot as a party nominee.
While justices didn't agree with all the legal reasoning of Carson City District Judge James Russell, they affirmed the outcome.
In his dissent, Justice Michael Cherry said "free-for-all elections" can provide a "degree of separation for our elected leaders from party insiders and narrow ideological activists."
He said while not judging the wisdom of that procedure, he would defer to Miller as the state's chief election officer to interpret state law.
In a statement, Miller said the ruling was "a well-reasoned opinion."
He also noted the courts' discussions on the lack of legislative history and ambiguity in the law.
"I fully respect the Supreme Court's decision and will conduct the special election accordingly," Miller said.
State GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said she was pleased with the ruling.
"The decision handed down today simply affirms our unwavering position and finalizes an answer to our questions with the secretary of state's unfortunate initial ballot rules," she said. "Today's ruling moves us one step closer to preserving this important seat, carrying our momentum into 2012 and turning Nevada red again."
Wednesday was viewed as the deadline by which a decision was needed to print ballots and otherwise prepare to hold the election on the date set by the governor.