Utah lawmakers abruptly ended a committee hearing Thursday to avoid considering a bill crafted in response to recent controversial actions by Attorney General Sean Reyes, who supported a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election results in key states.
House Minority Leader Brian King said he brought forward his legislation after hearing a number of people in the legal community express displeasure with the GOP attorney general for backing an attempt to challenge the presidential race outcome. But he’s been struggling to push his bill through the Republican-dominated Legislature in recent weeks, indicating that he had to fight just to get the measure assigned to a committee for a hearing.
Now, it appears HB232 has hit a dead end, after the House Judiciary Committee decided to adjourn their meeting rather than hear testimony on the bill.
“I have to say, it’s odd to me that there isn’t more willingness on the part of the Republicans on that committee at least to have a discussion about this,” King, D-Salt Lake City, said in an interview. “It’s just a weird lockstep, fall-in-line behind anything that has to do with supporting Donald Trump.”
Under King’s proposal, the state’s attorney general could only intervene in lawsuits to protect Utah’s interests by upholding the state’s constitution, laws, rules or resolutions, according to the bill.
If the attorney general is not directly representing a state official or entity in a civil action, he or she would have to consult with the governor and justify in writing why getting involved in the lawsuit would advance Utah’s interests, under the bill. The governor would have to give consent in these situations before the attorney general files an amicus brief — which are typically submitted by people who are supporting one side of a case but who aren’t themselves parties to it.
King said he pushed to put his bill on the judiciary committee agenda and was pleasantly surprised to see it was slated for a Thursday afternoon hearing. He later learned, though, that some type of mix-up led to the bill’s appearance on the agenda and that committee members did not intend to give it a hearing.
Rep. Brady Brammer gave King a heads-up that he planned to call for an early end to the judiciary committee meeting, and the minority leader said he was grateful for the advance notice, since he’d planned to line up a group of legal professionals to testify. Brammer said he wanted to avert a hearing that would likely turn contentious, even if that wasn’t King’s intent.
“It would devolve into an argument about the presidential election,” Brammer, R-Highland, said in an interview. “We just figured we would move on.”
Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive group dedicated to government accountability, expressed dismay at the committee’s decision to quash the bill hearing.
“It’s unfortunate that members of the Utah GOP decided to shield @UtahAG and his actions from even a discussion during the committee hearing this afternoon,” the group tweeted Thursday afternoon.
But King said he doesn’t see his proposal as partisan.
“If that bill passed, it would be just as binding on any Democrat who was attorney as it was on any Republican,” he said.
Brammer, on the other hand, said he didn’t support curtailing the powers of an independently elected state official.
“Elected attorney generals should have that discretion to do what they need to, but I always think it’s wise to consult with the governor,” he said.
Reyes, a stalwart supporter of Donald Trump, joined conservative attorneys general in other states in a Texas lawsuit that aimed to overturn the former president’s election loss. The Supreme Court tossed out the legal challenge, and Reyes’ participation in the suit drew condemnation from top Republicans in Utah.
Then-Gov Gary Herbert and now-Gov. Spencer Cox criticized Reyes for an “unwise” use of taxpayer resources and said they’d been caught off guard when the attorney general announced he wanted in on the election challenge. Herbert argued it was inappropriate for Utah to get involved in another state’s elections, while Cox said there was no evidence of widespread irregularities in the presidential contest.
Reyes, however, has maintained that he was acting in the public interest by supporting Trump’s failed attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory and that the Supreme Court challenge aimed to answer a “critical constitutional question” on separation of powers.
“I understand the Supreme Court is hesitant to address even important constitutional issues like this amid political controversy. Nevertheless, it is a question that remains and needs to be answered before the next election cycle,” Reyes said. “As attorney general, I have to defend state election laws and advise the executive branch but can’t do so if the force of those laws is in question.”
Earlier this session, Rep. Andrew Stoddard shared his intent to launch an impeachment probe targeting Reyes over his ties to a GOP attorneys general association — an organization that encouraged people to rally at the U.S. Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 riot. In his impeachment resolution, Stoddard, D-Murray, also took aim at Reyes for participating in the Texas lawsuit.
Stoddard’s resolution never gained traction this session.