Legislature seeks to bar attorney general from private law practice while in office

Feb 23, 2024, 11:40 AM

Utah lawmakers have advanced a bill that would prohibit the Utah attorney general from engaging in ...

Utah lawmakers have advanced a bill that would prohibit the Utah attorney general from engaging in private practice while in office. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah law prevents most elected attorneys in the state from working in private practice while in office. The prohibition applies to county attorneys as well as staffers who work for the state attorney general’s office. But the state’s top law enforcement — the attorney general — is under no such restriction.

That appears likely to change thanks to a bill to prevent the attorney general from practicing law privately while in office, which has received broad support from the Utah House of Representatives and a Senate committee.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said he’s been “sitting” on the bill for a couple of years and hasn’t previously had the “bandwidth” to run it in previous sessions. In light of recent intense scrutiny of Attorney General Sean Reyes’ relationship with anti-human trafficking activist Tim Ballard — who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault during his time as CEO of Operation Underground Railroad — Stoddard said he feels there is the political will in the Legislature to do something he’s long thought is a good policy.

“I just haven’t had the bandwidth to do it, nor did I think the body would be interested,” he told KSL.com Thursday, after HB380 was approved by a Senate committee. “But I think given everything that has happened over the last six months, it was one that I felt comfortable running and felt like I could actually get through.”

Stoddard said the bill isn’t specifically directed at Reyes’ connections to Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad, but said if passed, it could limit future potential conflicts of interest — after a lawsuit accused Reyes of acting as “de facto general counsel” for Operation Underground Railroad while in office.

As for the timing, Stoddard said, “As a Democrat, I’ve got to take advantage of any tailwinds I can get.”

Amid scrutiny of Reyes in October, lawmakers floated other potential changes to how the office functions and instructed legislative auditors to examine whether Reyes’ relationship with Ballard impacted his work as attorney general. State Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said at the time he was considering a constitutional amendment to change the attorney general to an appointed, rather than elected, position.

McKell said any potential constitutional amendment on the issue wouldn’t be put before the voters until at least 2028, and no such bill has been introduced this session.

Stoddard, a city prosecutor, said his bill makes the rules for elected attorneys uniform across the state, and he doesn’t expect any major opposition as the bill advances to the Senate floor.

“We want people who can come in with as few conflicts as possible, and we don’t want them creating conflicts while serving as the attorney for our state,” he said. “Ethically … I think it’s good policy.”

Having received unanimous support from the House last Friday, HB380 passed the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee with a 4-0 vote on Thursday.

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Legislature seeks to bar attorney general from private law practice while in office