LAS VEGAS — A union with ties to Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton failed in court yesterday to block the state party's plans to hold caucuses at special precincts inside casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Mahan was presumed to be a boost for rival Sen. Barack Obama in tomorrow’s Democratic presidential caucuses because he has been endorsed by the union representing many of the shift workers who will be able to use the precincts.
"State Democrats have a First Amendment right to association, to assemble and to set their own rules," Mahan said.
Nevada's Democratic Party approved creation of the precincts to make it easier for housekeepers, waitresses and bellhops to caucus during the day near work rather than have to do so in their neighborhoods.
The state teachers union, which has ties to Clinton, brought the lawsuit against the special precincts after local 226 of the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama for the Democratic nomination. The union is the largest in Nevada, with 60,000 members. The Clinton campaign said it was not involved in the suit.
The suit contended party rules allowing the precincts gave too much power to the casino workers and violated federal equal-protection guarantees.
But the judge said, "We aren't voting here, we're caucusing. That's something that parties decide."
He said it was "up to the national party and the state party to promulgate these rules and enforce them."
The Democratic National Committee ratified the state party's rules last August.
Campaigning in San Francisco, Obama welcomed the judge's decision, saying, "Any alternation would have disenfranchised maids, dishwashers, bellhops, people who work on the Strip. Some of the people who set up the rules apparently didn't think that we would be as competitive as we were and tried to change at the last minute."
Nevada State Education Association President Lynn Warne denied the case was linked to the Clinton campaign and said there would be no appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
In a statement, Clinton's campaign noted that other voters won't receive the same advantages as the bellhops and waitresses along the Strip.
"Make no mistake," the statement said, "the current system that prohibits some shift workers from being able to participate, while allowing others to do so, would seem to benefit other campaigns. More importantly, it is unfair."
Opinion polls find Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards in a statistical dead heat in the Nevada race. Each has made a vigorous bid for union support.
Opponents of the Strip precincts said they could be more valuable in the delegate count than some sparsely populated counties, giving them too much clout. The Culinary Union said the suit was an attempt to disenfranchise its members. "Backers of Hillary Clinton are suing in court to take away our right to vote in the caucuses," a union flier said.
Under the rules, the nine at-large precincts will be open to any shift employee working within 2.5 miles of the Strip. By one estimate, more than 700 of the roughly 10,000 delegates to the state party's presidential nominating convention could be selected at the casino caucuses, depending on turnout.
Obama has also collected the endorsement of the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union. The close nature of the contest and the logistics of caucuses created an intense struggle for labor's support, given its ability to organize and mobilize.