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Utah Supreme Court rejects challenge to parole board's power

Utah Supreme Court hears case over parole board’s ‘arbitrary and capricious’ power
Posted at 9:33 AM, Apr 30, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has rejected a woman's challenge to the power of the state's parole board.

Bobbie Dawn Widdison serving time for the 1996 murder of her infant daughter, Brianna Loveless. In 2011, the Utah Board of Pardons & Parole gave her a release date in 2018. Then it changed its mind and ordered her to serve the rest of her life in prison. She challenged that and — just as the case was reaching the Utah Supreme Court in 2019 — the state parole board changed its mind again and decided to release her.

Because she's out of prison now, the state's top court dismissed Widdison's case on Thursday as moot.

"We acknowledge the importance of the concerns Widdison advances, but Widdison has not convinced us that if we do not decide her case, we will likely deprive ourselves of any opportunity to review the types of issues she raises. We therefore decline Widdison’s invitation and dismiss this case as moot," Justice John Pearce wrote for the majority.

Even though she was ultimately released from prison, Widdison pursued the case to challenge the arbitrary power of the parole board on behalf of other inmates. The five member Board of Pardons & Parole are appointed by Utah's governor, but do enjoy an absolute power to decide when to release inmates who have indeterminate sentences. In death penalty cases in Utah, it is the parole board — not the governor — who can issue a pardon.

Justice Pearce acknowledged that there are certain legal questions to be answered, but the Court declined to take them up.

"Although we agree with Widdison that her appeal raises issues that affect the public interest and are likely to recur, we are not convinced the issues she raises are likely to evade review," he wrote, citing a lengthy volume of case law.

The Court's majority appeared unconvinced that the parole board released Widdison just to keep her case from reaching them.

"Widdison carries a burden of convincing this court that the hurdles she notes are likely to prevent us from having another opportunity to address the issues she raises. She does not connect these dots, and indeed, her argument runs contrary to this court’s experience. Despite the very real difficulties inmates may have to confront, we routinely are presented with appeals and petitions that inmates file with the assistance of counsel," Justice Pearce wrote.

While he agreed with the majority in tossing Widdison's appeal, Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee criticized his colleagues for overriding prior case law and rationales they have used to decide these issues.

"The court goes out of its way to preserve a dubious vision of a body of older case law at the expense of clearer, more recent precedent. In so doing, it undermines constitutional limits on the judicial power, injects confusion into our case law, and turns its back on some central tenets of the doctrine of stare decisis [legal precedent]," he wrote.

Read the Utah Supreme Court's ruling here: