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Utah Supreme Court signals it is grappling with a big issue in redistricting case

Posted at 4:58 PM, Jul 14, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court signaled it is seriously grappling with the issue of whether the Utah State Legislature violated Utahns' constitutional rights in the redistricting process.

In an order obtained by FOX 13 News on Friday, Associate Chief Justice John Pearce said the Court is seeking supplemental briefing following oral arguments earlier this week. At issue, he wrote, the justices wanted to focus on a claim leveled by the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and the individual plaintiffs: that the legislature violated the constitutional rights of Utahns to "alter or reform" their government in Proposition 4.

Here is what the order says:

"If the court were to conclude that a) the people's article 1 section 2 right to alter or reform their government is a fundamental right, and b) the people exercised that right when they enacted Proposition 4:

1) Should a level of scrutiny apply in determining whether SB200 violated the people's right to alter or reform their government?

2) If so, what level of scrutiny should apply?

3) Should the level of scrutiny vary based on the nature of the particular changes to Proposition 4 that Plaintiffs challenge?"

Questions about whether the legislature trampled on the rights of Utahns who successfully passed Prop. 4 were at the heart of Tuesday's hearing before the Utah Supreme Court. Justices peppered an attorney representing the legislature about it extensively.

The request by the Court can be seen as a positive development for the plaintiffs. That's certainly how the League of Women Voters of Utah is taking it.

"The League and the plaintiffs in this case have long held that Proposition 4 was improperly repealed, violating the will of the people to reform our government. We have been heartened by the deep, probing questions from the justices and the fact that they are focusing on this constitutional right," League President Katharine Biele said in an email to FOX 13 News. "Prop. 4 created a process that empowered Utahns to have a voice, and the legislature discarded the voters’ will to serve its own political interests."

In a joint statement to FOX 13 News late Friday, Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson said: "We appreciate the Utah Supreme Court taking the time to review the case thoroughly."

In 2018, voters approved Proposition 4, which created an independent redistricting commission to draw boundaries for who represents Utahns in Congress, the Utah State Legislature and state school board. But the legislature overrode Prop. 4 and passed SB200, which was dubbed a "compromise." Under it, the independent commission could draw boundaries and advise, but the legislature had the final say (as the legislature argues it has the constitutional power to do). Lawmakers instead voted for maps advanced by their own redistricting committee.

The League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government sued, arguing the maps for Congress were "partisan gerrymandering" to ensure Republicans remained in power in all four districts. A lower court judge refused the legislature's request to dismiss the lawsuit, prompting the case going before the Utah Supreme Court.

The state's top court has taken the case under advisement with no timeline for a ruling.