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Utah Supreme Court: Legislature may have overstepped by altering ballot initiative, returns case to lower court

Jul 11, 2024, 9:54 AM | Updated: 7:08 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has ruled the Utah Legislature may have overstepped when it altered a voter-led ballot initiative that created the independent redistricting commission to draw congressional maps.

The ruling overturned a district court decision that dismissed Count V of the original lawsuit and returned the case to a lower court for reconsideration, meaning the case will be subject to further litigation. It affirms the right of Utah citizens to alter or reform government with ballot initiatives.

“We hold that the people’s right to alter or reform the government through an initiative is constitutionally protected from government infringement, including legislative amendment, repeal, or replacement of the initiative in a manner that impairs the reform enacted by the people,” read the court’s opinion. “Thus, an alleged violation of the people’s exercise of these rights presents a legally cognizable claim on which relief may be granted.”

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 The GOP-majority Legislature in 2020 repealed the bulk of the law empowering the commission and the following year drew maps that divided Salt Lake County into four districts.

Dozens spoke against the congressional maps the committee released in November 2021, while a few spoke in favor.

“The blatant tearing apart of Salt Lake County into four congressional districts and the disenfranchisement of minority voters does not demonstrate impartial decision-making,” a public commenter said. “You have created a firestorm of opposition by treating the voters of Utah with disrespect.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2022 by the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and several individual plaintiffs, alleges the Legislature undermined Utahns’ constitutional rights to a free election when it adopted the new map. Lawmakers said they split Salt Lake County four ways to ensure each district has a mix of rural and urban voters.

Article I, Section 2 of the state Constitution states: “All political power is inherent in the people; and all free governments are founded on their authority for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.”

The right to “alter or reform” government was a key point of focus for the justices during oral arguments in the case. In her opinion, Justice Paige Petersen rejected arguments from the Legislature that lawmakers can amend or repeal citizen initiatives.

“On that basis, the district court dismissed Count V (of the lawsuit),” Petersen wrote. “But a close look at the original public meaning of the Alter or Reform Clause and the Initiative Provision reveals that Utahns’ exercise of these constitutional rights is protected from undue government infringement. Thus, these constitutional provisions limit the Legislature’s authority to amend or repeal an initiative that reforms the government.”

The court didn’t rule on four other counts of the lawsuit, saying “…those claims may become moot depending on the ultimate resolution of Count V.”

Utah Senate Democrats said they “applaud the court’s recognition of these constitutional protections, including the right to fair and impartial redistricting processes. 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.”

“Today, the Supreme Court of Utah issued a landmark decision in ‘League of Women Voters of Utah v. Legislature’, affirming the constitutional protections of citizen-led initiatives,” read a statement from the Utah Senate Democratic Caucus. “The court’s ruling underscores the fundamental principle that the power to alter or reform our government is inherent in the people of Utah and must be safeguarded against undue legislative interference.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a post on X Thursday, “Today’s unanimous decision by the Utah Supreme Court is a significant victory for participatory democracy in Utah. The court affirmed that the people of Utah, through initiatives, have a major role in directly making state law and policy. It sends a clear message that the Utah legislature has no right to usurp the people’s power.”

The court’s full decision can be read below:

Utah Supreme Court, League … by LarryDCurtis

This is a breaking story. It may be updated.

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Utah Supreme Court: Legislature may have overstepped by altering ballot initiative, returns case to lower court