Utah Supreme Court dismisses ACLU’s coronavirus lawsuit targeted at county jails

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A Utah Department of Corrections officer walks through the medium security Wasatch A block at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2014.

The Utah Supreme Court has tossed a lawsuit that challenged how Utah’s jails and prisons were responding to the pandemic.

The high court did not address any of the allegations made in the lawsuit, but instead ruled that the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and two other groups did not have proper legal standing to bring the lawsuit to court.

The justices noted there was not a named plaintiff or inmate that the groups were representing, and the groups didn’t show that the issues they wanted to litigate would “unlikely to be raised” if they weren’t allowed to bring their lawsuit.

The ACLU noted in a statement released Friday that the Utah Supreme Court ruled that they weren’t the right parties to bring it to court. They said it’s likely that lawsuits from individual prisoners could “be the next front in efforts to ensure that incarceration during a pandemic is not a gamble with the death penalty.”

The organization commended the county jails for the efforts it has taken so far to reduce risk of the coronavirus spreading, which has included freeing up space by releasing inmates early or not bringing people to jail in the first place.

“But we also believe more can be done to protect the health and lives of people who remain in state and county custody, as well as jail and prison employees and their families," the statement reads. "To achieve the same level of openness and trust achieved by other state and local agencies addressing the pandemic, we encourage corrections officials statewide to be as proactive and transparent as possible about their COVID-19 response efforts in communications with the public, the media and advocacy groups.”

Salt Lake County officials applauded the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling, saying it was not the time or proper venue for a lawsuit.

“This case was an unnecessary waste of resources and time during the pandemic,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in a statement. “If the petitioning organizations had reached out to learn, share, and collaborate about common objectives, rather than a rush to judgment lacking facts or evidence, we could have jointly served the community of citizens based on our shared goals and the county’s best practices.”

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera added that this will allow those who run the jail to get back to work without the distraction of “unnecessary court proceedings.”

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor who represented several crime victims who were part of the litigation, similarly was critical of the ACLU.

“This ill-conceived case was never anything but a distraction to the efforts of the state and the counties to try to deal with a challenging situation,” he said. “The Supreme Court's summary dismissal properly ends that distraction.”

The ACLU jointly filed the original petition April 1 with the Utah Disability Law Center and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, asking the state Supreme Court to step in and order officials to reduce the jail population and do more to keep the incarcerated population safe from COVID-19.

The groups recently asked that the lawsuit be dismissed against Salt Lake County and 21 other counties, saying they believe local governments were taking adequate measures. They wanted to keep suing Utah prison officials, but the high court’s ruling dismisses the lawsuit in its entirety.

The groups said two weeks ago that they didn’t know what measures were being taken before filing their lawsuit — despite their efforts to request that information from jailers across the state prior to litigation. Those efforts became more clear after counties filed their responses in court, which is why they asked for the counties to be dismissed from the lawsuit.

The counties initially fought back, saying they wanted to stay in the lawsuit and get a written ruling from the high court siding with them.

The Utah Supreme Court did say they were right when they argued that the ACLU did not have proper standing to bring the lawsuit, but the justices didn’t address any substantive issues beyond that.