Utah Supreme Court: Last-minute, composite education bill was constitutional
Lawmakers did nothing wrong when they rolled more than a dozen education programs, including some that had failed on the House floor, into one bill that passed on the last night of the legislative session five years ago, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a ruling that caps years of court decisions and appeals, the state's highest court ruled Tuesday against a group of nearly 40 education leaders and lawmakers who sued over the bill, SB2. That group claimed the bill was unconstitutional because it covered more than one subject, its title was unclear and it delegated duties that should have belonged to the state school board to other entities instead.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a district court ruling that dismissed the first two claims, though it said the plaintiffs had standing to sue over them. The court also ruled that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue on the other counts.
"It is a huge win for the Legislature," said David Irvine, a lawyer for the group who sued, "and the practice at the Legislature of anything goes."
He said if the claims within the lawsuit didn't raise constitutional questions, he didn't know what would.
Legislative leaders, however, were vindicated by the ruling. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said had the court ruled against the bill it could have had ramifications for a number of measures, such as budget bills that tend to include many programs and line items.
"Look at our budget bill," Niederhauser said. "That has hundreds of things in there. How would you like to run a bill on every one of those items? That would be extreme, and I think the constitution is just telling us they have to be related ... and I think that's where it needs to be so we have some flexibility to include a number of things in a budget bill or public education bill or transportation bill."
The Supreme Court ruling affirmed lawmakers' stand that the programs in SB2 were adequately related.
"... The bill on its face treats a single, albeit broad, subject: education," according to the ruling. "The presence in the bill of funding measures directed toward education programs does not render it unconstitutional."
The ruling also says that, "a title such as the one this bill has is arguably the fairest way of putting legislators and citizens on notice of what the Bill contains."
The bill's short title was "Minimum School Program Budget Amendments" but it also had a longer title that included a bullet point list.
Kim Burningham, a state school board member and one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling Tuesday "disappointing."
"The basic philosophy that's troubling to me is the whole idea that you could take a group of items, throw them into one bill and pass it all together," Burningham said, "because what happens then is you take motions that people may oppose and add in ones they [support] and you are not judging individual items on their merit but rather how many political favors you can rack up."
Niederhauser, however, said the Legislature is committed to continually improving transparency. He said he believes the lawsuit over SB2 raised awareness at the Legislature when it comes to what goes into bills, though lawmakers did the right thing in 2008.
"I think it was proven in this case that our staff and the Legislature are doing a good job of presenting what's in a bill, and that can be easily assessed by reading the title and the highlights," Niederhauser said.
Irvine said this latest ruling on SB2 represents the end of the line for the case.
See the ruling
The Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday on a case over the constitutionality of SB2, an education funding bill from 2008. To see the ruling go here: http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/Gregory1318031913.pdf