A lawsuit against the Utah Legislature over its splitting Salt Lake County into four districts can move forward. The Utah Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Thursday morning.

The suit dealt with who gets to draw congressional maps — the Utah Legislature or an independent commission. The case will go back down to a lower court and litigation will likely continue.

“The people’s constitutional right to alter or reform their government is protected from government infringement,” said the court. “We could not hold otherwise.”

The court ruled that when Utah voters pass initiatives, the ability for the Legislature to intervene or make changes to the initiatives is limited. Those initiatives are protected from “unfettered legislative amendment, repeal or replacement.”

The Utah Supreme Court said that these initiatives may be constitutionally challenged if the Utah Legislature were to show a compelling government interest.

This means the Legislature must pass a legal test known as strict scrutiny — the law they are reforming or repealing an initiative would have to be written narrowly enough to address a compelling government interest.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued a statement about the decision Thursday, saying he disagreed with some aspects of it, but respected the role of the court.

“The issues addressed in today’s opinion by the Utah Supreme Court are significant — so significant that I filed an amicus brief with the court last year. While I disagree with some of the court’s analysis and determinations, I respect the role of the court in our system of government,” said Cox. “Ultimately, what matters is that we craft policy that keeps Utah the No. 1 state in the nation to work, live, and raise a family. We look forward to continuing Utah’s pattern of careful and deliberate policymaking with the best interests of Utahns as the top priority.”

Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz and Senate President Stuart Adams called the Utah Supreme Court decision “one of the worst outcomes” they’ve ever seen and said “the court punted and made a new law about the initiative power, creating chaos and striking at the very heart of our republic.”

The two Utah Republican leaders said the ruling “will have profound and lasting ripple consequences that could negatively impact the state’s future.”

“It mirrors how states like California are governed — by big money and outside interest groups that run initiatives to alter the government and push their own agendas,” said Schultz, R-Hooper, and Adams, R-Layton.

“The Utah Supreme Court has gone a step further by creating ‘supreme laws’ that could be tied up in lengthy disputes for years. This decision strips away the ability of state, county, and municipal authorities to enact policies and expose them to prolonged legal battles,” said the two Utah Republican leaders. “As the ligation continues in the lower court, we believe the Utah Constitution’s text shows that the Legislature should ultimately prevail.”

Schultz and Adams expressed gratitude to their legal counsel “in representing our Founding Fathers’ republic, the Legislature, the citizens of Utah and upholding the legislative process.”

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Groups sue Utah Legislature, alleging unconstitutional gerrymandering

Utah gerrymandering case background

In 2022, the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and a group of Salt Lake voters sued the Utah State Legislature challenging the congressional map lawmakers had drawn. The plaintiffs asked that districts be drawn so that the voting power of any group of voters is not diluted in a systematic way.

Back in 2018, Utah voters had approved a ballot measure that created an independent redistricting commission in order to avoid gerrymandering. Nearly 200,000 Utah residents signed the initiative.

After the ballot measure was passed, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, sponsored what was at the time deemed a compromise bill between lawmakers and Better Boundaries — the group behind the ballot measure known as Proposition 4 that created the independent commission.

The 2020 bill was approved by the Legislature and it still allowed the commission to propose congressional, legislative and State School Board boundary maps, but the Legislature was given the ultimate stamp of approval.

Then, the next year in 2021, the Utah Legislature approved its own maps over those of the commission. The commission had given the Legislature several different options of maps to choose from that they created with public input, but the Legislature went a different direction.

The map was drawn by 20 members of the Legislature who were part of the Legislative Redistricting Committee. The committee included five Democrats and 15 Republicans.

As a result, Salt Lake County was broken down into four congressional districts. The city of Millcreek is where the four districts converge. Depending on where in Millcreek residents live, they are in one of the four districts.

Lawmakers argued this split was made because it would give each district both rural and urban voters while those critical of the split said it gave Republicans advantages in a county that is more politically diverse than others in the state.

League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and Salt Lake voters then sued. They alleged Utahns protested the map and the Legislature received 930 emails critical of it while only receiving 11 emails in support of it.

These groups contended that the Utah Legislature should not be able to repeal Proposition 4 and that the map violates Utahns’ rights to free speech and association as well as free elections.

The Utah Legislature argued that Utahns’ right to free speech and association as well as free elections are not in conflict with partisan gerrymandering. The defendants pointed toward previous federal case law that said that some amount of partisan gerrymandering is allowed.

The Utah Legislature argued this to a district court and moved to dismiss all the claims from League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and the Salt Lake voters. The district court did not grant the motion to dismiss all the claims, but it did dismiss one claim.

The district court dismissed the claim that the Utah Legislature could not repeal or amend Proposition 4. The court agreed with the argument of the Utah Legislature, which was that since Proposition 4 was a statute, the Legislature had the constitutional authority to repeal it or amend it.

The case made it up to the Utah Supreme Court.

Attorney Taylor Meehan argued on behalf of Utah and Mark Gaber represented the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and the group of individuals.

“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,” argued Meehan. “And here, the constitution does not say otherwise.”

Meehan argued the Utah Legislature is accountable to the people of Utah more so than an independent commission.

“In a way we’re outsourcing redistricting, and frankly, putting politics underground instead of in public,” said Meehan. “It’s politics all the way down.”

Gaber countered Meehan’s argument by saying that the people have power and the Legislature shouldn’t be able to override that decision.

“Once you take the power from the people, you have it — the Legislature has it. They can draw the lines for themselves so that it doesn’t matter what the people want,” said Gaber.

Utah Supreme Court decision

As mentioned above, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the suit can proceed, but it did also reverse the district court’s decision to dismiss a count of the suit.

The court said while the defendants argued that the Legislature can amend or repeal statutes, including citizen initiatives, Utahns have a constitutional right to pass initiatives and be protected from government infringement.

Looking closely at the original meaning of a couple parts of the Utah Constitution, the court said, “these constitutional provisions limit the Legislature’s authority to amend or repeal an initiative that reforms the government.”

Until after the resolution of Count V — which deals with Proposition 4 — the Supreme Court said it would pause the other counts, retain jurisdiction over them and would potentially address those at a later date. It’s possible those claims could become moot in the future.

“We owe it to the people of Utah to determine, first and foremost, whether their selected method of addressing partisan gerrymandering should set governing legal standards,” wrote the court.

Reaction to the decision

Utah Senate Democrats issued a statement praising the decision, saying it ensured that when citizens enact reforms, those initiatives are protected.

“The Senate Democrats applaud the court’s recognition of these constitutional protections, including the right to fair and impartial redistricting processes,” said the statement. “We stand firmly with the authority of Utah’s voters and their right to shape a transparent and just government that truly represents the voices of all Utahns.”

The Utah House Democratic Leadership Team also commended the decision in a statement.

“As we await further developments, we reaffirm our commitment to advocating for a redistricting process that maintains the integrity of our elections and respects the rights of all voters,” read the statement from the Utah House Democratic Leadership Team. “We remain committed to honoring the will of the people who passed Proposition 4, establishing an independent redistricting commission, and are dedicated to working with stakeholders, advocates, and community members to ensure a more inclusive and representative democracy where every vote counts, and every community is fairly represented.”

Better Boundaries — the group behind Proposition 4 — took to social media to celebrate the decision.

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“The Utah Supreme Court affirms our constitutional right to reform our government,” said the group. “This major victory sends the case back to the lower court.”

One of the plaintiffs, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, said on social media, “The people of Utah are the winners today as the court steps in to protect their right to choose their representatives!”

Gabi Finlayson, senior partner at Democratic consulting firm Elevate Strategies, said she thinks the decision shows that Utah is at an inflection point and the political landscape of the state will change.

The will of the people has been hindered by unconstitutional districts and unchecked extreme politicians. As the youngest and fastest-growing state in the nation, Utah’s political landscape is rapidly evolving. Millennials and Gen Z voters, who overwhelmingly prefer Democrats, are already shifting the state’s dynamics,” said Finlayson. “With today’s ruling, Utah’s political future will be more balanced and competitive. Watch out, Utah is about to become a battleground state.”

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