Utah AG’s office wants $2 million annually to sue the federal government

The request to lawmakers is in addition to the $5 million legislative leaders set aside to sue the Biden administration over national monuments restoration.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, left, and Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak speak about a lawsuit filed by Utah and other states against Google, Wednesday, July 7, 2021.

The Utah Attorney General’s office asked the Executive Appropriations Committee on Thursday for $2.1 million annually to help hire attorneys to assist with future lawsuits against the Biden administration.

“When President Biden came into office, we were anticipating a lot of executive orders and regulatory actions, but he greatly exceeded our expectations,” Melissa Holyoak, Utah’s solicitor general, said.

Utah was part of the successful fight against the Biden administration’s vaccine or testing requirement for some private employers. The Supreme Court struck down the mandate. Utah is also part of several other legal challenges against the current administration, including President Joe Biden’s executive order restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

Threatening to stand up to the federal government is a familiar tactic in the Utah Republican playbook. The COVID-19 pandemic has given Utah leaders a chance to put their words into action, and now they want to deepen their bench.

Holyoak says she spends a significant part of her time coordinating these legal challenges with other states, many of which have a dedicated staff to work on constitutional issues. According to Holyoak, West Virginia has five attorneys tasked with that work, while Arizona has eight.

The money would go toward adding attorneys to the AG’s office and hiring outside counsel to assist with the legal actions. Holyoak explained the AG’s office is plagued with high staff turnover as many opt for higher-paying positions in the private sector.

She requested funding for such assistance last year but was told the money was unavailable. She warned the need has only increased since then.

“I don’t think anyone saw what was coming to the extent of the federal overreach we would face. The state looks to our office when there’s federal overreach — when there is an intrusion on our sovereignty — and we are doing what we can. But, there’s a storm of federal regulations and overreach coming,” Holyoak said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, took umbrage at Holyoak’s characterization of the Biden administration and federal government, criticizing her for lack of nuanced analysis.

“I have litigated hundreds of federal court cases, and I’ve litigated hundreds of court of appeals cases. You’re providing to us, as your client, these broad brush strokes in blatantly partisan terms. I’m offended by it. I expect more from our solicitor general than that,” King said.

The $2.1 million request is in addition to $5 million legislative leaders set aside before the session for the legal challenge to Biden’s order on national monuments.

A decision on the funding request will come when legislative leaders set the final budget toward the end of the session.