Utah Supreme Court: Legislature overstepped its authority by changing redistricting initiative
3 mins read

Utah Supreme Court: Legislature overstepped its authority by changing redistricting initiative

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that lawmakers exceeded the people’s power to change their government by changing a ballot initiative creating an independent redistricting commission.

The decision in League of Women Voters of Utah v. Utah State Legislature, released Thursday, reversed a district court decision dismissing one of the counts of the original lawsuit against the Legislature but remanded the case to a lower court, meaning it will be subject to further litigation.

The court’s ruling comes exactly one year after oral arguments were heard on the recently adopted congressional district maps. The plaintiffs — including the League of Women Voters of Utah, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and several individuals — argued that lawmakers undermined the constitutional rights of Utahns to free elections by ignoring the electoral maps recommended by an independent commission.

In 2018, voters approved Proposition 4 to create a commission to draw maps every 10 years, but later in 2020, lawmakers watered down the commission’s role to advisory only in SB200, then adopted their own maps during the 2021 redistricting cycle.

The plaintiffs argued that weakening the referendum initiative violates the Utah Constitution, which grants “the people of the State of Utah” the same legislative power as legislators.

In her opinion, Judge Paige Petersen rejected the legislature’s argument that lawmakers can amend or revoke citizens’ initiatives.

“On that basis, the district court dismissed Count V (the lawsuit),” Petersen wrote. “However, 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 unwarranted governmental infringement. Thus, these constitutional provisions limit the legislature’s authority to amend or repeal a government reform initiative.”

She later added that the Utah Constitution’s Alteration or Reform Clause “demonstrates that the people’s exercise of the right to reform their government through initiative is constitutionally protected from governmental infringement, including the alteration or repeal of legislation that impedes the intended reform.”

The opinion said courts should apply strict scrutiny to cases “in which the right of the people to directly reform government through their legislative initiative is at issue,” and said that if the plaintiffs are able to prove this argument in a lower court, “the burden of proof will shift to defendants to show that SB200 was narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest.”

The court did not rule on four other counts of the lawsuit. The district court denied the Legislature’s motion to dismiss those counts, and the defendants appealed the dismissal to the Supreme Court.

Petersen said the court will address those issues “pending the resolution of Count V’s case. We will consider the appeal if the resolution of Count V’s case in the district court does not render it moot.”

This story will be updated.