Faced with a likely legal defeat over a bill’s constitutionality, the Utah Legislature on Wednesday repealed a measure limiting federal land agencies’ law enforcement powers.
HB155 sponsor Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, sought the repeal “on advice of counsel” after U.S. District Judge David Nuffer issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law’s implementation.
“We need to learn from this experience so we won’t make this mistake in the future,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, one of the few House members who had voted against the bill earlier this year. “There are better ways to resolve these issues than to pass a bill that we will have to repeal and litigate in court later on.”
Dubbed “the sheriffs’ bill,” HB155 would have barred Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officers from enforcing state laws, imposing criminal penalties on them for “impersonating a peace officer” if they detained or ticketed someone for speeding, fishing without a license and other violations that are not specifically prohibited under federal law.
Backed by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, Noel claimed BLM rangers and Forest Service forest protection officers harass citizens and step on the law-enforcement priorities of local authorities, who are accountable to voters.
But on Wednesday he conceded that a better way to resolve these issues is to build better relationships between local law enforcement and federal agencies.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, put it this way: “When you find yourself riding a dead horse, the best option is to dismount.”
Noel joked back, saying his horse might be down, but it will rise again.
But Democrats who had raised doubts about HB155’s constitutional muster during this year’s general session, which adjourned in March, did not find much humor.
“It seems that what we’ve done is imprudently pass legislation that now [has] been revealed [in court] to be fatally flawed,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. He was troubled that the Legislature would “backpedal” on the measure only after the court issued an injunction, but before it could issue a final ruling.
The U.S. Justice Department sued in May and successfully argued in pre-trial proceedings that HB155 violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. After a June 28 hearing, Nuffer agreed the bill “creates irreparable harm to the constitutional order.”
In court, the bill’s defenders argued it was intended to curb alleged abuses, but they could not identify a specific example of a federal officer improperly “assimilating” a state law.
HB155, opposed by only a handful of Democrats, was just one of several bills and resolution the Utah Legislature passed in the past two years designed to reduce federal influence on the state’s public lands.
“Our citizens are getting sick and tired of bills and laws that don’t stand up in court,” said Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay. “I know there are things we need to fight for. There are many that are frivolous that our citizens are paying for.”
“The state of Utah has not expended anything on legal fees. To say this cost the state a certain amount is certainly not true,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “There is a process. If we believe a judge is making a wrong decision we can appeal that.”
Wednesday’s repeal vote was unanimous in the House, but three Senate Republicans voted no.