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Attorneys who spent thousands of dollars contesting a $317.29 phone bill unconscionably abused the legal system, the Utah Supreme Court says.

However, the justices unanimously ruled Mountain Bell could not take a past-due bill from George M. McCune's defunct partnership and apply it to his new business telephone account "without first exhausting partnership assets."The decision, released Wednesday, found the phone company's billing actions unreasonable, even though they had been approved by the state Public Service Commission. But the justices had stronger words for the lawyers in the case and McCune, who represented himself.

"Although we are compelled to reverse the commission's decision, we note that McCune's actions in avoiding payment of a just debt through these proceedings certainly do not reflect well on him or on the legal profession," wrote Justice Michael Zimmerman for the court.

"For members of the Utah State Bar to use, or we might say, abuse the system over an uncontested $317.29, 2-year-old debt is absurd."

The PSC had estimated the expense of the suit to Mountain Bell, state business regulatory agencies and the courts "could well exceed $5,000" and would be passed on to taxpayers and utility ratepayers.

"No matter how valid the complainants feel their cause is," the court said, "as a strictly legal matter, we believe it is unconscionable for members of the bar to abuse the system to this extent."