The rows of church-like benches were filled Tuesday (July 11, 2023) in Matheson Courthouse with concerned citizens, media, attorneys, and plenty of attorneys – law students, legal partners, retired judges, attorneys representing the state and plaintiffs. At the front of the chamber sat the five justices who make up the Supreme Court of Utah.
An issue of great interest to the Utah legal community was how the Utah Supreme Court would rule after hearing arguments challenging Utah’s congressional districts, drawn by the Republican legislative majority. It will be months before the decision is announced, but the impact will be felt by citizens whose voices have been mitigated by the redistricting process.
This case seeks to answer: If redistricting is in the hands of the legislature only; if the courts have a role in the dispute; And if the legislative authority has the power to cancel an initiative approved by the majority of the people.
However, even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the redistricting case is far from over; In fact, he would have just cleared the first hurdle. He would assert that state courts have the power to influence the constitutionality of redistricting, giving the campaign’s legal status its day in court.
Attorney Mark Garber provided oral arguments to the Campaign Legal Center representing the League of Women Voters, Mormons for Ethical Government, and a number of Utah residents in their claim that the state deliberately rigged Utah’s constituency.
The court’s actions on Tuesday were the most respectful, fair, and reasoned practice in government I’ve experienced in Utah. I have attended sessions and public hearings usually dominated by members of the Republican legislature with the result already disappointing.
On Thursday (July 14), two days after the hearing, the Supreme Court asked for more information — a supplemental briefing on Proposition 4’s claim (that the repeal was unconstitutional), a good sign that the justices are working to deliver a fair and informed decision.
The issue is complex, and I would encourage people to read Robert Gerke’s analysis at The Salt Lake Tribune. Or, read the transcript and watch YouTube for the hearing, because the case has depth of Utah law and history worth knowing.
One of the most pressing and longest-running questions on Tuesday was parsing the meaning of two words in the Utah state constitution, “legislature.” There is agreement that it means both the legislature and the citizens assembled, though the state has continued to hold that in this case, for some reason, the two words exclude the public and mean only the elected members of the state legislature.
At least four of the five justices have digging heavily into the state (attorney Taylor Meehan), asking what remedies remain for citizens when a statewide plebiscite is passed by a majority of the electorate, yet can simply be ignored by the legislature. The state’s answers were not satisfactory. The state claims that citizens can either elect different leaders, or lobby or contact their representatives.
If the Utah Supreme Court has the wherewithal to stand before the Republican legislature with a two-thirds majority, it may not be enough to give citizens a say in their government, since Utah law has already begun to dismantle equal powers from government. Other state legislators give themselves the power to override court decisions.
This is less of a threat in states like New Hampshire or Arizona, which have equal representation in their government. But the triumvirate of Republicans in Utah — the Republican governor and a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate — makes Utah’s need for a strong judiciary especially important.
Utah Rep. Brady Brummer’s HJR 2 bill reads as a battle plan to undermine the role and independence of the Utah judicial system. The Utah Joint Assembly Resolution 2 (HJR 2) represents an effort by one branch, the legislature, to try to wrest power from another branch, the judicial branch, whose role is to ensure that the legislature does not pass laws that violate the rights of Utah citizens.
In addition, Utah Republican Sen. Kirk Collymore is doing everything he can to roll back the vetting process currently in place for Utah judges in hopes of importing federal community judges from out of state.
This plan to circumvent the justice system is no ordinary partisan politics. It’s a huge responsibility to be a state legislator, especially in a state that divides counties to ensure you don’t lose. The country must admit that it is not the moral high ground that gives them victory – they just move the goalpost to preserve the supermajority.
Kathy Adams was the dance writer for The Salt Lake Tribune (2002-2019) and has written about dance for Salt Lake Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance Stitcher Magazine and more.