A year and a half after the tortuous redrawing of Utah’s political districts, a judge has deemed that the Utah Democratic Party — and, by extension, anyone — has the right to see legislative documents without having to pay a mint for them.
Third District Judge L.A. Dever also found that the GOP-dominated Legislature’s claim that courts have no jurisdiction to review requests for records is bogus. He also ordered the Legislature to pay the Democrats’ legal fees of about $15,000.
That has to hurt. And that’s a good thing.
With one ruling, a minority party won a victory that transcends money. It means that the courts — the third branch of government — can weigh in on a clash between political parties and, at the same time, preserve the right to obtain political documents without undue burden.
This fracas was spawned when Republicans retreated behind closed doors in 2011 to redraw political districts for state lawmakers and U.S. House representatives. Democrats cried foul, as did many Utahns and the news media — but the GOP blithely ignored everyone and created a mishmash that remains tilted in its favor.
Joe Hatch, the Democratic Party’s attorney in this matter and a former Democratic Salt Lake County councilman, sees another problem.
He wonders why the Legislature created a different set of rules for itself than those for cities, counties, executive agencies and the judiciary, among others.
“I do not understand why there should be separate rules for the Legislature,” he said. “They should bear the same burden on themselves as every other governmental entity.”
Taking a long view, though, this particular Government Records Access and Management Act issue is a remnant of the past.
The 2013 Legislature was still heavily Republican, but some of the more strident GOP players were gone.
Former Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who during this GRAMA debate said Democrats were “verging on irrelevance,” was replaced in that seat by the more mild-mannered Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
There were no scandals. There were some oddities: a push to move the Utah State Prison, and, conceivably, turn its operations over to a private operator advanced, and the sure-to-fail bid to seize federal lands puttered along.
Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis became a state senator himself and seemed to have kept the lid on some of his more partisan shots. But on Wednesday, he took a celebratory tone.
“We prevailed in court and showed that when you stand up, take on the big challenges and push for what’s right, your voice will be heard,” he wrote on the party’s website.
Then, of course, he asked for donations to the Democrats. That’s OK. It just means Utah has settled back into politics as usual.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.