COURTS & LEGAL

Utah Supreme Court scrutinizes process that sliced state’s most Democrat-heavy district into 4

Jul 11, 2023, 11:33 AM | Updated: 12:49 pm

The independent redistricting commission presents their map proposals to the Legislature at the Cap...

The independent redistricting commission presents their map proposals to the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 1, 2021. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether courts should allow the state’s Republican-majority Legislature to carve up Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County into four congressional districts.

The court fight asks whether state courts can review whether district maps drawn by elected officials violate the state constitution and is the latest battle over how states draw political maps and follows a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying legislatures absolute power to do so.

Along with KentuckyNew Mexico and New York, Utah is among the states in which Republicans and Democrats are battling over whether partisan gerrymandering — drawing political maps that favor one party over another — violates the law and imperils people’s right to choose their representatives in a democracy.

Seven voters and two advocacy groups — the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government — sued lawmakers in the deeply conservative state last year over the maps they drew a year prior. In their lawsuit, they argue the Republican-drawn map “takes a slice of Salt Lake County,” which is the state’s most Democratic-leaning, “and grafts it onto large swaths of the rest of Utah.”

“The effect is to disperse non-Republican voters among several districts, diluting their electoral strength and stifling their contrary viewpoints,” their attorneys argue in court documents.

Judge rules Utah redistricting lawsuit can move forward

The state Supreme Court is hearing arguments Tuesday about whether to send the case back to a state court to consider whether the maps violate provisions of the Utah Constitution guaranteeing free elections, free speech and due process, or are beyond the purview of the courts and solely a matter for the Legislature to decide. If they send the matter back to a lower court, a judge could potentially rule the maps unconstitutional and initiate a court-directed process to redraw districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that district maps were primarily a matter of state law. Last month, it decided that lawmakers were bound by state constitutional restraints in drawing maps and said the state Supreme Court in North Carolina had the jurisdiction to review the state’s maps. Attorneys for Utah in earlier court filings asked justices to delay their decision until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on that case, Harper v. Moore.

In court filings and in their opening arguments Tuesday, they did not lean into the concept at the heart of North Carolina’s arguments, known as independent state legislature theory; however, Utah’s four congressional members relied heavily on the theory in a brief they filed in support of the state.

Utah Legislature passes new congressional map

But similar to attorneys representing North Carolina, Utah’s argued redistricting was a legislative matter and court intervention threatens the separation of powers between courts and legislatures.

“Nothing in the Utah Constitution permits Utah courts to traverse the hazards of the political thicket of redistricting,” Utah’s attorneys write in court filings. “Redistricting’s inherent policy choices, and the inherent political consequences of those policy choices, belong to the political branches.”

The state tempered its arguments Tuesday. As Republican state lawmakers sat behind her, attorney Taylor Meehan acknowledged the Legislature did not have absolute power to draw maps. She said that the state constitution gave the Legislature the power to make policies and draw maps and that voters chose to elect representatives to draw districts If unsatisfied, voters could vote them out of office.

“I think it’s just a function of our messy democracy,” Meehan said.

If the courts overrule the maps, Meehan added, they will be applying an arbitrary, and political, definition of fairness to the districting process that isn’t their job to apply, essentially usurping the Legislature’s power to balance districting concerns like shape, size and partisan makeup.

Supreme Court rules in favor of Black voters in Alabama redistricting case

“They’re asking for the court to rule that the Legislature can dilute people’s votes on the basis of their viewpoints,” Mark Gaber, the voters’ attorney, said in an interview Monday. “It’s about whether the Legislature is the supreme power in the state, more important than the people and more important than their courts.”

It’s not clear when the justices will issue a ruling.

The redistricting battle spans back to 2018, when Utah voters narrowly approved the establishment of an independent commission tasked with drawing political maps. The GOP-majority Legislature in 2020 repealed the bulk of the law empowering the commission and the following year drew maps that divided Salt Lake County into four districts. President Joe Biden won the county by 11 percentage points in 2020, when Utah elected four Republicans to Congress.

Utah’s Better Boundaries Executive Director Katie Wright issued a statement after the hearing.

“We commend the courage of the plaintiffs in their pursuit of fair electoral districts. These are individuals and organizations who care deeply about fairness and equality under the law and we’re grateful for their principled sincerity,” Wright said.

Wright also praised the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the hearing saying they “clearly laid out that the Utah Constitution protects our citizens from egregious partisan gerrymandering.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Courts & Legal

Texts shown during Chad Daybell's jury trial show he and Lori Daybell planned to be together in Haw...

Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Texts show Chad and Lori Daybell’s relationship days after her husband’s death

Jurors for Chad Daybell's trial heard testimony on Friday about Lori Daybell's texts from an FBI agent, along with the end of testimony from Lori Daybell's friend, Melanie Gibb.

9 hours ago

Crime scene tape. (Getty Images)...

Associated Press

Police to review security outside courthouse hosting Trump’s trial after man sets himself on fire

Police officials say they are reviewing whether to restrict access to a public park outside the courthouse where former President Donald Trump is on trial after a man set himself on fire there.

10 hours ago

FILE - Rays of sunlight pierce through the clouds Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, above homes burned by wi...

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Associated Press

Hawaii Supreme Court chides state’s legal moves on water after deadly Maui wildfire

The Hawaii Supreme Court says the state attorney general's office must pay attorney fees for using last year's Maui wildfire tragedy to file a petition in “bad faith” that blamed a state court judge for a lack of water for firefighting.

1 day ago

Chad Daybell stands next to his attorney, John Prior, during his murder trial in Boise on Wednesday...

Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Chad and Lori Daybell used ‘castings’ to pray for spouses’ deaths, ex-friend testifies

An ex-friend of Lori Daybell testified Thursday that Chad and Lori Daybell prayed for evil spirits to leave their spouses, which if successful would mean the person would die.

1 day ago

FILE - New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks Feb. 16, 2024, in New York. Donald Trump coul...

Philp Marcelo, Associated Press

New York man pleads guilty to sending threats to state attorney general and Trump civil case judge

A New York man has pleaded guilty to sending death threats to the state attorney general and the Manhattan judge that presided over former President Donald Trump’s civil fraud suit.

1 day ago

FILE - Celina Washburn protests outside the Arizona Capitol to voice her dissent for an abortion ru...

Arit John and Cheri Mossburg, CNN

Lawmakers vote against hearing Arizona bill repealing abortion ban on House floor

The Republican-controlled Arizona House of Representatives once again failed to advance a repeal of the state’s 160-year-old abortion ban Wednesday

2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Utah Supreme Court scrutinizes process that sliced state’s most Democrat-heavy district into 4