Utah's controversial way of picking candidates for the state school board has landed the state and its attorney general in court again.
The two women who filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court, including a board incumbent, were passed over by a committee that winnows down a list of candidates for the governor, who selects nominees to place on the ballot. Joined by a resident who wanted to vote for one of the women, they claim Utah laws violate the U.S. Constitution.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, said Friday it's too soon to comment on the lawsuit.
Two years ago, when the committee bounced Incumbent Denis Morrill, a state judge ruled the laws did not violate the Constitution.
The plaintiffs' attorney, David Irvine, said Friday he hopes the federal system will give the constitutional questions "a better shake."
Incumbent Carol Murphy was elected by Park City area voters four years ago, but rejected in her re-election bid by the Committee for the Recruitment and Nomination of Members of the Utah State Board of Education last April. She is joined by plaintiffs Carmen Snow, who was rejected as a candidate for the seat representing Washington County, and Stacey McGinnis, who wanted to vote for Snow.
The suit alleges the women were rejected, in violation of their First Amendment rights, because they are advocates of public education rather than what it calls "privatization" of schools via school vouchers and other mechanisms.
According to Utah law, the committee, appointed every two years by the governor, scrutinizes those who want to run for the board and submits to the governor the names of three final candidates for every open seat. The governor then picks the two candidates whose names will appear on the November ballot in state school board districts statewide.
The suit contends the system politicizes the school board. It alleges that the committee is heavily weighted with business interests and lobbyists who favor privatizing education and rejects candidates who don't pass a conservative litmus test.
"For example, the questionnaire required candidates to state their support or opposition to Utah Core Curriculum Standards and the teaching of sex education in public schools, two highly contentious issues, both of which have been driven by ultra-conservative factions of Utah's Republican Party," it said.
Snow says she was angrily denounced by committee member Chris Bleak during her interview with the committee because she is executive director of Utahns for Public Schools, an advocacy group heavily involved in defeating school vouchers several years ago.
Bleak is president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools and said Friday that he was not denouncing Snow, but strongly believes that the board should be able to work well with the Legislature. Snow's organization has been adversarial to the Legislature, he said.
Bleak also said that the two questions the lawsuit highlights about sex education and the core curriculum were raised by public education advocates, not by committee members deemed to be conservatives. "The whole notion of the lawsuit is false."
While Bleak describes the committee as representative of diverse interests without one prevailing political philosophy, Irvine said the system is inherently flawed. He believes Utah should pick its school board candidates as it does municipal and other candidates through primaries.
"That committee is an aggregation of special interests .and it simply is not better qualified to make candidate selections than the voters at large."
The plaintiffs are not seeking money. They want Judge Dee Benson to declare that Utah's laws dictating how school board candidates are picked to be unconstitutional. And they want him to not let the state enforce those laws next time the plaintiffs run for school board seats.