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Don’t punish Legacy opponents

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A bill that would require anyone who sues to delay an approved public project to reimburse all the state's costs if the legal challenge fails would further widen the gap between the public and government, and it ought to fail.

We say this despite our strong stand in favor of the Legacy Highway, and our disgust with the groups that have sued to delay its construction. The state argues these delays cost taxpayers $92,500 a day because of a clause in the contract that requires the state to pay the contractor during work stoppages. That is only the start of it. The toll on air pollution and traffic delays, which continue to mount so long as Davis County commuters have only one freeway option into Salt Lake County, is equally staggering.

The project has been carefully planned and negotiated with objections in mind. It received state and federal approval. But opponents were able to get a federal appeals court to issue an injunction in December that halts construction until a court hearing in March. Hence the proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Terry Spencer, R-Layton. According to a recent Deseret News/KSL TV poll, the public tends to favor the bill.

The construction delay is regrettable. It even qualifies as irresponsible. But this is a nation of laws and procedures. The opponents of Legacy sought redress through legal means. They didn't lie down in front of bulldozers or pour sand in the engines of construction crews. The judicial branch of government cannot be ignored as an unnecessary irritant. In the American system, efficiency often takes a back seat to fairness, regardless of cost. People who seek redress through the courts should not be intimidated into going away.

That is what the bill in question would do. It would not prohibit anyone from suing to stop a project, but it would require them to pay all the state's costs if the suit failed. That certainly would have a chilling effect on anyone contemplating legal action, regardless of how legitimate the cause. Judges have the power to award such costs if necessary. That power should remain at their discretion.

In recent years, developers and other high-powered and well-heeled concerns have begun suing people for speaking out against their projects in public meetings. These have been dubbed "SLAPP" suits, or "strategic lawsuits against public participation." The bill in question does not quite fit the definition, but it is in the same genre as a SLAPP, which is patently un-American.

In this case, the courts clearly should allow construction of the Legacy Highway to proceed. The injunction should have been denied in the first place. But Americans are duty bound to live within the constraints of the system, and to rely on its ultimate fairness.