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Constitutional notes needed

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Utah's legislative process is best served when lawmakers have as much information as possible. One legislator, Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay, wants to dispense with constitutional review notes that legislative staff members attach to proposed bills — notes that indicate the bill raises potential conflicts with the state or federal constitutions. He frets that it unnecessarily slants proposed legislation. Besides, he reasons, some lawmakers "don't know what it means legally anyway."

His proposal has many pitfalls and should be rejected by legislators for the following reasons:

First, the supposition that constitutional notes taint legislation doesn't fit with actual experience. Of 754 bills introduced during the 2000 Legislature, 22 had constitutional review notes. Thirteen of them passed anyway.

Second, constitutional notes warn legislators early that particular bills may face lengthy court challenges. That is important information, given that the taxpayers will ultimately foot the state's legal bills. At the least, it forces lawmakers to decide whether the principle behind the proposed law outweighs the headache of a challenge.

Third, Short has proposed that only the bill's sponsor be alerted to possible constitutional conflicts in the form of a confidential memo. Unless the bill's sponsor elected to share the information, other legislators and the public would have to ask an attorney to evaluate the proposed legislation.

The desire for a cloak of secrecy is particularly worrisome. If legislative research and legal counsel are to review the constitutionality of a particular proposal, the best use of that research is to openly disclose the information with fellow lawmakers and the public. Keeping such things secret could particularly cause problems during the closing days of the legislative session when a good number of bills are passed with little, of any, real debate.

Lastly, a constitutional review notation does not keep lawmakers from passing important, yet controversial, legislation. If a legislator feels strongly enough about a certain issue, he or she should be willing to take it on. But to do so without full knowledge of the consequences is as foolhardy as stumbling through the dark in bare feet.

Short's proposal has the propensity to dim the lights on Utah's capitol hill. It could further push the public out of what is supposed to be a public process. Lawmakers should send it packing.