Utah Supreme Court to Rule Gerrymandering Lawsuit on Thursday
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Utah Supreme Court to Rule Gerrymandering Lawsuit on Thursday

Exactly one year after the Utah Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case testing the scope of the legislature’s ability to rig district boundaries and rewrite voter-approved initiatives, the justices have made up their minds and will deliver their opinion on the matter on Thursday.

At the heart of the issue is a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and a group of Salt Lake County voters who claim the Legislature gerrymandered the county’s most populous and liberal districts into four safe Republican districts and deprived them of congressional representation.

They argued that the redistricting went against the Better Boundaries referendum initiative, approved by voters in 2018, which created a politically independent redistricting commission and attempted to impose guidelines that would prevent the Republican-dominated legislature from dividing and splitting areas for political advantage.

The legislature rewrote this law, weakening it to the point that the maps provided unanimously by the independent commission were merely recommendations, so that the legislature could ignore the commission’s opinion and draw the boundaries as it saw fit.

Lawyers for the Legislature argued in lower courts and before the justices last year that the Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to redistrict, and that courts have no authority to challenge or change the results. If voters don’t like the maps, they should vote to disqualify the lawmakers who drew them, the lawyers argued.

If the Supreme Court rules the maps invalid, it could send the case back to a lower court or order the Legislature to redraw the congressional boundaries (the plaintiffs in the lawsuit did not challenge any of the legislative districts). The new boundaries would not go into effect before the 2026 election.

“From our perspective, we have consistently said for more than seven years that voters should elect politicians, not the other way around,” Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, said Wednesday. “We hope the court will reach the same conclusion.”

But the larger issue that emerged during these Supreme Court arguments: Do legislators have the authority to fundamentally undo ballot initiatives that have been passed on the ballot? Or does the Utah Constitution’s provision that “All political power is inherent in the people…and they have a right to alter or reform their government” give courts the authority to intervene when legislators reverse the will of the voters?

During last year’s hearing, Judge Paige Petersen noted that if lawmakers could undo any initiative approved by voters, the constitutional provision that gives power to the people would lose its meaning.

“When do people have the final say?” Petersen asked. “You’re saying they can’t have the final say in the initiative process. People, structurally, never have the final say.”

Justice John Pearce suggested that courts could exercise greater scrutiny in cases where lawmakers fundamentally alter legal measures that would “change or reform their government,” as happened in this case.

If the justices were to take up the issue, it could have implications that go beyond the gerrymandering lawsuit. In addition to the Better Boundaries initiative, voters passed two other ballot measures in 2018 — one legalizing medical marijuana in the state and one expanding Medicaid coverage to more low-income people in Utah.

The legislator significantly changed all three legal acts.

If Pearce’s theory proves true, legislatures may not be able to take similar actions in the future.

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