POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Utah Supreme Court scrutinizes process that sliced state’s most Democrat-heavy district into 4

Jul 11, 2023, 12:28 PM | Updated: 12:30 pm

The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether courts should allow the state's Republica...

The court fight asks whether state courts can review whether district maps drawn by elected officials violate the state constitution and is the latest battle over how states draw political maps and follows a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying legislatures absolute power to do so.(John Wojcik KSL NewsRadio)

(John Wojcik KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether courts should allow the state’s Republican-majority Legislature to carve up Democratic leaning Salt Lake County into four congressional districts.

The court fight asks whether state courts can review whether district maps drawn by elected officials violate the state constitution and is the latest battle over how states draw political maps and follows a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying legislatures absolute power to do so.

Along with Kentucky, New Mexico and New York, Utah is among the states in which Republicans and Democrats are battling over whether partisan gerrymandering — drawing political maps that favor one party over another — violates the law and imperils people’s right to choose their representatives in a democracy.

Seven voters and two advocacy groups — the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government — sued lawmakers in the deeply conservative state last year over the maps they drew a year prior. In their lawsuit, they argue the Republican-drawn map “takes a slice of Salt Lake County,” which is the state’s most Democratic-leaning, “and grafts it onto large swaths of the rest of Utah.”

“The effect is to disperse non-Republican voters among several districts, diluting their electoral strength and stifling their contrary viewpoints,” their attorneys argue in court documents.

The state Supreme Court is hearing arguments Tuesday about whether to send the case back to a state court to consider whether the maps violate provisions of the Utah Constitution guaranteeing free elections, free speech and due process, or are beyond the purview of the courts and solely a matter for the Legislature to decide. If they send the matter back to a lower court, a judge could potentially rule the maps unconstitutional and initiate a court-directed process to redraw districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that district maps were primarily a matter of state law. Last month, it decided that lawmakers were bound by state constitutional restraints in drawing maps and said the state Supreme Court in North Carolina had the jurisdiction to review the state’s maps. Attorneys for Utah in earlier court filings asked justices to delay their decision until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on that case, Harper v. Moore.

In court filings and in their opening arguments Tuesday, they did not lean into the concept at the heart of North Carolina’s arguments, known as independent state legislature theory; however, Utah’s four congressional members relied heavily on the theory in a brief they filed in support of the state.

But similar to attorneys representing North Carolina, Utah’s argued redistricting was a legislative matter and court intervention threatens the separation of powers between courts and legislatures.

“Nothing in the Utah Constitution permits Utah courts to traverse the hazards of the political thicket of redistricting,” Utah’s attorneys write in court filings. “Redistricting’s inherent policy choices, and the inherent political consequences of those policy choices, belong to the political branches.”

The state tempered its arguments Tuesday. As Republican state lawmakers sat behind her, attorney Taylor Meehan acknowledged the Legislature did not have absolute power to draw maps. She said that the state constitution gave the Legislature the power to make policies and draw maps and that voters chose to elect representatives to draw districts If unsatisfied, voters could vote them out of office.

“I think it’s just a function of our messy democracy,” Meehan said.

If the courts overrule the maps, Meehan added, they will be applying an arbitrary, and political, definition of fairness to the districting process that isn’t their job to apply, essentially usurping the Legislature’s power to balance districting concerns like shape, size and partisan makeup.

“They’re asking for the court to rule that the Legislature can dilute people’s votes on the basis of their viewpoints,” Mark Gaber, the voters’ attorney, said in an interview Monday. “It’s about whether the Legislature is the supreme power in the state, more important than the people and more important than their courts.”

It’s not clear when the justices will issue a ruling.

The redistricting battle spans back to 2018, when Utah voters narrowly approved the establishment of an independent commission tasked with drawing political maps. The GOP-majority Legislature in 2020 repealed the bulk of the law empowering the commission and the following year drew maps that divided Salt Lake County into four districts. President Joe Biden won the county by 11 percentage points in 2020, when Utah elected four Republicans to Congress.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Politics + Government

Mail-in ballots being sorted...

Don Brinkerhoff

Nonprofit working to build trust in Utah elections

Trust Utah Elections, a new nonprofit, is working to help Utahns have confidence in the state's election process.

6 hours ago

File photo of a Utah elementary school. The School Safety Security Task Force met Monday, June 17, ...

Briana Chavez

School Safety Security Task Force discuss new requirements for schools as part of new bill

One of the biggest requirements includes a school safety needs assessment. Each school in the state must fill one out.

20 hours ago

drivers memorial day...

Curt Gresseth

Is it time for Utah to bring back photo cop to bust speeders?

A Utah lawmaker joins the show to discuss a possible return of photo radar to bust speeders.

22 hours ago

View of Salt Lake City pictured, governor is cracking down on denver sending immigrants to utah...

Aimee Cobabe

Utah governor’s office pushing back against Denver for bussing immigrants to Utah

Gov. Spencer Cox's office says that the City of Denver did not consult with them about sending immigrants to Utah.

4 days ago

The Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City, the governor hascalled a special session...

Sam Herrera and Jessica Lowell

Gov. Cox calls special legislative session to be held on Juneteenth

The special legislative session happens on Juneteenth. The governor's office said it would observe Juneteenth on Monday rather than Wednesday.

4 days ago

A Biden-Harris campaign sign is seen among signs for other Utah Democratic Party candidates during ...

Eric Cabrera

Stealing campaign signs could get you a misdemeanor charge

Police say stealing campaign signs from your neighbor's lawn could cost you a misdemeanor, or even the right to vote.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Underwater shot of the fisherman holding the fish...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Your Bear Lake fishing guide

Bear Lake offers year-round fishing opportunities. By preparing ahead of time, you might go home with a big catch!

A group of people cut a purple ribbon...

Comcast

Comcast announces major fiber network expansion in Utah

Comcast's commitment to delivering extensive coverage signifies a monumental leap toward a digitally empowered future for Utahns.

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Utah Supreme Court scrutinizes process that sliced state’s most Democrat-heavy district into 4