Utah Supreme Court sides with opponents of redistricting that carved up Democratic-leaning area

Jul 11, 2024, 10:59 AM

FILE - Attorney Taylor Meehan presents an argument for the state for a case challenging the state's...

FILE - Attorney Taylor Meehan presents an argument for the state for a case challenging the state's congressional districts before the Utah Supreme Court, July 11, 2023, in Salt Lake City. On Thursday, July 11, 2024, Utah's Supreme Court handed a victory to opponents of redistricting that carved up Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County among four congressional districts that have since elected Republicans by wide margins. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

(Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

Utah’s Supreme Court handed a victory Thursday to opponents of redistricting that carved up Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County among four congressional districts that have since all elected Republicans by wide margins.

The 5-0 ruling won’t affect elections this year. The Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court to revisit the process for redrawing the state’s congressional boundaries.

That will take time, and the current boundaries will remain for now.

But an attorney for the League of Women Voters and others that challenged the boundaries drawn by the state Legislature was optimistic they would be overturned.

“This is a sweeping victory,” said Mark Gaber with the Campaign Legal Center. “I’m hopeful we will prevail and in the end we will have new, fair maps in Utah.”

State lawmakers had argued the new maps ensured a better mix of urban and rural areas in all districts. They also said redistricting could not be subject to judicial review, a claim Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism about in arguments a year ago.

The contested map approved by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature stripped power from a independent redistricting commission that had been established to ensure that congressional boundaries aren’t drawn to favor one party over another. Utah voters created the commission by narrowly passing a “Better Boundaries” ballot initiative in 2018.

The Legislature repealed the “Better Boundaries” commission process in favor of its own. In 2021, lawmakers approved a map that divided Salt Lake County, which Joe Biden carried by 11 points in the 2020 election, among the state’s four congressional districts.

Lawmakers ignored a map drawn by the commission, prompting the lawsuit.

“People were out going door to door soliciting signatures,” Katharine Biele, president of the Utah League of Women Voters, said of the ballot initiative. “Then the Legislature just threw out everything we’ve done. We’re a happy bunch right now.”

Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican who signed the commission repeal and redistricting bills into law and sided with lawmakers in the case, said in a statement he disagreed with some of the ruling but respected the Supreme Court’s role in Utah government.

Utah’s constitution gives significant weight to statewide ballot initiatives, which if approved become laws equal to those passed by the Legislature. Lawmakers may not change laws approved through ballot initiative except to reinforce or at least not impair them, or to advance a compelling government interest, the Supreme Court ruled.

“I’m not going to make predictions about what courts will do, but that seems like a tall burden,” Gaber said of future proceedings in the case.

A landmark 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling denied state lawmakers’ absolute power to draw congressional boundaries.

Republicans and Democrats in several other states including Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Alaska have battled over whether partisan gerrymandering violates the law and imperils people’s right to choose their representatives.

In Utah, Republicans have dominated elections in all four of the state’s congressional districts since the redistricting. The last Democrat to represent Utah in the U.S. House was Ben McAdams, who narrowly lost to Burgess Owens after a recount in the Fourth District race in 2020.

In 2022, Owens won the district by an almost 30-point margin. The district previously had a history of trading hands between Republicans and Democrats after every election or two.

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Utah Supreme Court sides with opponents of redistricting that carved up Democratic-leaning area