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
(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 Kentucky, New 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.
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.
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.
“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.”