Legislature can’t ignore ballot initiatives, Utah Supreme Court rules in redistricting case

The Utah Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Utah Legislature overstepped its authority when it rewrote a 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that established an independent redistricting process and drew its own congressional maps that split Salt Lake County — the most liberal and populous county in the state — into four different congressional districts.

Utah’s Constitution, the court said in its unanimous opinion, grants the citizens of the state the political power to reshape its government, a guarantee that is made meaningless if any ballot measure that passes can be undone by the Legislature.

“We hold that when Utahns exercise their right to reform the government through a citizen initiative, their exercise of these rights is protected from government infringement,” Justice Paige Petersen wrote in the opinion. “This means that government-reform initiatives are constitutionally protected from unfettered legislative amendment, repeal, or replacement.”

Legislative leaders blasted the ruling, calling it “one of the worst outcomes we have ever seen from the Utah Supreme Court.”

The Utah Supreme Court sent the case back to a judge in Utah’s 3rd District Court to make a determination on whether the Legislature usurped the will of the people when it passed SB200 in 2020, gutting much of the voter-approved Proposition 4, the Better Boundaries initiative, which prohibited partisan gerrymandering and imposed other restrictions on the Legislature’s redistricting process.

In order for SB200 to survive, attorneys for the Legislature will have to show that the law can pass a “strict scrutiny” standard — meaning the state will have to show there is a compelling reason to pass the law and that it was done in the narrowest way possible.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Mark Gaber from the Campaign Legal Center listens to the state’s rebuttal during oral arguments for a case challenging the state’s congressional districts before the Utah Supreme Court in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

If the state can’t clear that bar, “the act enacted by Proposition 4 would become controlling law,” Petersen wrote. “And under Proposition 4, if the facts alleged by plaintiffs are proven true, it is likely that the Congressional Map cannot stand.”

If the law is struck down, the Legislature will be forced back to the drawing board to adopt new maps, but this time maps that comply with the initiative’s ban on partisan gerrymandering and requirements that districts be contiguous and respect county boundaries.

“I don’t know how you follow those standards and (still) sever Salt Lake City. It sort of naturally flows from there,” said Mark Gaber, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, who argued the case before the Utah Supreme Court a year ago.

There are several steps that remain, he said, but Gaber said he hopes new maps will be in place before the 2026 election.

While the case before the court only challenges the congressional boundaries, if SB200 is struck down at the district court, the Legislature would also have to revisit the maps for the Utah House, Senate and school board, potentially shifting the makeup of all three.

The executive director of Better Boundaries, the nonprofit that organized the ballot initiative, said the ruling “marks a significant victory for representative democracy in Utah.”

“The people of Utah voted in 2018 for more transparency and accountability from our state government and today the Utah Supreme Court affirmed it,” Katie Wright said in a statement. “We look forward to the day when Utah voters can finally pick their own politicians, not the other way around.”

But House Speaker Mike Schultz and Senate President Stuart Adams strongly disagreed with Wright’s sentiment.

“This is one of the worst outcomes we’ve ever seen from the Utah Supreme Court,” they said in a statement. “Rather than reaching the self-evident answer, today the Court punted and made a new law about the initiative power, creating chaos and striking at the very heart of our republic.”

The legislative leaders said the court’s ruling would turn Utah into a state like California, where “big money and outside interest groups that run initiatives” to push their own agendas. It keeps state, county and local lawmakers from enacting policies and subjects them to potential legal battles.

Govt. Spencer Cox — whose Lt. Govt. Deidre Henderson was named in the case — cited an amicus brief he submitted to the court last summer, in which he argued that the Legislature has the ultimate authority to draw congressional maps, and to amend legislation passed by initiative. Preserving that, he previously wrote, would “protect against pure democracy’s problems.”

“While I disagree with some of the Court’s analysis and determinations, I respect the role of the Court in our system of government,” the governor wrote, adding that he looks forward to “continuing Utah’s pattern of careful and deliberate policymaking with the best interests of Utahns as the top priority.”

Utah House and Senate Democrats issued separate statements Thursday, both applauding the decision.

“We urge the court to thoroughly examine the issues at hand and promptly resolve the case before the next election cycle,” House minority leadership wrote. “This timely action is crucial to prevent prolonged uncertainty and to uphold the integrity and public confidence in our democratic election process.”

The dispute stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2022 by the League of Women Voters, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and a group of Salt Lake County voters who contended that, by splitting the county into four districts, the Republican-dominated Legislature effectively deprived county residents of a meaningful vote and a voice in Congress.

Attorneys for the Legislature argued that the US Constitution gives the Legislature broad authority when it comes to drawing congressional boundaries and the courts — except in rare cases — do not have the authority to second-guess or reject the maps lawmakers draw.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Taylor Meehan talks with Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson during a break in oral arguments for a case challenging the state’s congressional districts before the Utah Supreme Court in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

The ruling is likely to have impacts well beyond redistricting.

In 2018, voters passed two additional ballot initiatives, in addition to the Better Boundaries measure. One legalized medical cannabis in the state, the other expanding Medicaid coverage to more low-income Utahns. The Legislature significantly altered those as well.

The court did not address either of the other two initiatives. But under the ruling, when future initiatives reform government, the Legislature would have to give deference to the will of voters and would only be able to make changes that facilitate or advance the initiatives’ goals.

“This is a sweeping victory. This isn’t just about partisan gerrymandering. This is restricting the legislative power to repeal government reform initiatives,” Gaber said. “It respects the process the voters put in place to ban partisan gerrymandering, but it is also a limitation (on the Legislature) to simply repeal something the voters have passed .”

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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