POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Utah Supreme Court hears arguments in lawsuit opposing Utah redistricting

Jul 11, 2023, 4:44 PM

Justices on Utah's Supreme Court sat through hours of oral arguments on Tuesday in a case debating ...

Attorney Taylor Meehan presents an argument for the state for a case challenging the state’s congressional districts before the Utah Supreme Court in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)

SALT LAKE CITY — Justices on Utah’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a case involving Utah’s congressional boundaries, and ultimately, whether recent redistricting was unconstitutional.

But the issue isn’t the boundaries. Rather, it is who holds the power of congressional redistricting.

According to the state, there’s no question: the power belongs to the legislature.

“The state legislature has absolute power to enact — that is, pass, amend, or repeal — any law whatsoever it pleases, unless state or federal constitutions say otherwise,” Taylor Meehan argued for the state. “And here, the constitution does not say otherwise.”

Mark Gaber argues the power is with the people.  He’s the lawyer representing the League of Women Voters, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and several named individuals challenging the district lines.

“Does the clause that says ‘all political power is inherent in the people and they have the right to alter and reform their government,’ does that mean what it says? Or does it actually mean that it’s all in the hands of the legislature?” Gaber said.

Gaber also argued that Utah’s constitution gives Utahns the right to free elections.

The plaintiffs’ argument against Utah redistricting

Better Boundaries is the non-partisan, non-profit organization behind Proposition 4, a ballot initiative passed by Utah voters in 2018 but repealed by Utah lawmakers in 2020.  However, an independent redistricting commission survived the political changes, and it was this commission, fed by public input, that suggested multiple new congressional district maps for Utah lawmakers to choose from.

Utah lawmakers, not that independent commission, ultimately created the map they chose and approved.  

The resulting lawsuit claims that the constitutional rights of Utah voters were violated when lawmakers chose a map that divided Salt Lake County, the state’s only politically competitive county. 

The state’s argument for Utah redistricting

Members of Utah’s legislature argue that their only concern when creating new congressional districts was that each district represents both the rural and urban aspects of the state. And House Speaker Brad Wilson said that lawmakers regularly change existing statutes, describing ballot initiatives as another type of statute.

“We go in and change statute all of the time,” he said.

At the end of the day, he added, Utah voters hold the cards of power, and can still hold legislators accountable for decisions they don’t like.

“The way people are held accountable today, under our Constitutional language, is lawmakers are held accountable at the ballot box.”

Will this decision be the deciding decision?

No matter what, the question of redistricting in Utah will remain long after the oral arguments before the Utah Supreme Court. 

“If the judges find in favor of the plaintiffs here, at least in terms of this argument, then they’ll refer it back to the trial court,” said Greg Skordas, KSL legal analyst. “They’ll have a trial, and that judge will decide whether or not the Better Boundaries argument and the Citizen Ballot Initiative should prevail and that those boundaries, those legislative districts should prevail rather than the ones that the Utah State Legislature put in place.”

Basically, Skordas said, the justices must rule not about the legality of the existing congressional district boundaries but about who holds the authority to redraw congressional district maps.

A ruling from the court could take 60 to 90 days. 

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Utah Supreme Court hears arguments in lawsuit opposing Utah redistricting