LAS VEGAS (CNN) - The Democratic Party can go ahead with a plan to let casino workers take part in Saturday's Nevada caucuses in "at-large" precincts set up in their workplaces, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
The state teacher's union went to court to challenge the plan, arguing that the casino caucus sites Saturday night will give the roughly 200,000 workers on the Las Vegas strip an unfair advantage over other voters who have to work that night. But U.S. District Judge James Mahan rejected that argument after a Thursday morning hearing.
The lawsuit sparked a battle between the 28,000-member Nevada State Education Association and the state's biggest labor organization, the 60,000-member Nevada Culinary Workers Union, which supports the casino caucuses. The culinary workers endorsed Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in Saturday's contest and accused the teachers union of trying to tilt the race in favor of his leading rival, senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton of New York.
Recent published polls show Clinton and Obama in a statistical dead heat going into the Nevada contest. Saturday's results could give the winner the upper hand going into the first contest in the South, the January 26 primary in South Carolina.
"When you're trying to change the rules a week before that were approved 10 months before, that's just not right, and I think people see through it as just crass politics," D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Nevada Culinary Workers Union, said Wednesday.
The teachers' union has not endorsed Clinton, though some of its members and leaders are backing the former first lady.
"There are many conspiracy theories, I'll grant you that," said Terry Hickman, the union's executive director. "But our effort and our belief is that there's a fundamental right of fairness that's being ignored."
Republicans have made no provisions for "at-large" caucuses, so workers who want to participate in the GOP contest must find time to return to their neighborhood precincts.
Clinton said Wednesday that she wanted to see the issue resolved, "because obviously we want as many people as possible to be able to participate." And her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said he "had nothing to do with this lawsuit."
But he told a reporter from San Francisco television station KGO in a testy exchange that "some people in Nevada are old-fashioned. They think the rules should be the same for everybody, and everybody's vote should count the same."
UPDATE: The Obama campaign applauded the court's decision. "We're glad that the Nevada court upheld the Nevada Democratic Party's caucus plan which encourages voter participation," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement.
"While the Clinton camp clearly believed the voices of workers should be silenced in service of their perceived political interest, they enjoyed a 25-point lead two months ago and have much of the party establishment in their camp. So, despite their inherent advantages we are pleased this should be a close and competitive contest Saturday," said Burton.
– CNN's Jessica Yellin and Candy Crowley contributed to this report