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Utah may feel impact of 3 controversial legal rulings

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For many politicians, judges are constitutionally authorized nuisances (unless the decisions are useful for a political agenda). Shrewd officials and candidates respond to or utilize court actions to their advantage. We examine the impact of three recent controversial decisions:

Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco overturned Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriages in California. Many LDS members in Utah contributed to the 2008 Prop. 8 election campaign, which generated tremendous controversy. Will a court decision in California impact elections in Utah?

Pignanelli: "Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel." — Judge Sturgess

Although the San Francisco federal court is more than 600 miles away, Utahns are feeling aftershocks. The wounds and hard feelings from the initiative battle are reopened. Some gay militants are hurling public taunts at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while moral conservatives are issuing a call to arms. Strategists in Utah's major campaigns are developing tactical maneuvers in response.

A hot topic in the 2004 elections, gay marriage was a nonissue this year … until now. Because the Utah Constitution contains a marriage provision similar to that of California, candidates are likely to be asked their opinion of the California development and the Utah law. Clever GOP operatives will use the controversy to force Democrat opponents to submit a public position. Democrats in swing districts will work to balance statements that do not offend their important constituent base of gay and lesbian supporters while appeasing more conservative voters. Same-sex marriage is once again on issue in Utah's 2010 elections.

Webb: It was a dreadful decision, overturning the will of the voters and a decision that liberals and Democrats may come to regret. The judge has tossed out some red meat for conservatives. The decision will energize the Republican base and provide further evidence of the need to elect conservatives to fight the liberal judiciary that wants to attack traditional values and make laws rather than interpret laws. With most voters across the country opposing same-sex marriage, Republicans may get a nice boost at the ballot box. The decision will be appealed and this fight will go on, at all levels and branches of government.

How will the San Francisco decision impact further political involvement by Utah Mormons in this issue?

Webb: I have no inside information about how aggressively the LDS Church will continue to engage on this issue, but I assume church leaders will be very careful given the church's rough treatment during and after the 2008 election in California. Some big political battles are ahead, but I doubt we'll see the LDS Church leading the charge with fundraising and grassroots organizing efforts.

Pignanelli: Although LDS adherents were only part of a larger team of Proposition 8 supporters, they became the focus of animosity. We all remember the fallout from elections and the intensity of the passion. Then, LDS Church officials soothed the waters with their open support of the Salt Lake City anti-discrimination ordinances. This wonderful exhibition of compassion is forgotten by the activists in the emotional fervor surrounding the court decision. LDS social conservatives will continue to push their brethren to support causes similar to Proposition 8. However, this legal development will also cause quiet questioning whether the political intrigue is worth the trouble as the country moves toward acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Will the Arizona federal court decision to strike, but also support, portions of the famous immigration legislation, and a Virginia federal court allowing the lawsuit against Obamacare to move forward, impact Utah elections?

Pignanelli: The Arizona court decision will force candidates to articulate how a similar Utah law should be fashioned. Simply dodging the question with grumbles leveled at the federal government is no longer adequate. The current success of litigation against health care reform will push candidates to develop responses on whether mandatory health insurance is allowed under the U.S. Constitution.

Webb: Immigration will continue as a hot issue, but in Utah some reasonable ideas are emerging from Sen. Howard Stephenson, the Salt Lake Chamber and the Sutherland Institute. Rep. Stephen Sandstrom is crafting legislation to toughen law enforcement, but he is taking into account the Arizona court decision. The most thoughtful and practical proposals on immigration are coming from the state level, not the federal level. Unfortunately, a reasonable resolution will require action from the dysfunctional and polarized federal government.

Besides the Virginia court decision, Obamacare also suffered a setback in Missouri, where voters overwhelmingly demonstrated that they don't want to be forced to buy insurance. Federal health care reform remains a net negative for Democrats.

The big political question on all these issues is whether Utah Republican candidates like Morgan Philpot, who is running against Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson, can take advantage of them, rallying Utah voters against Democrats.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.