Gerrymandering lawsuit moves forward in Utah; judge rules no need to wait for U.S. Supreme Court

Attorneys for the state had sought to delay the lawsuit until the U.S. Supreme Court decides if state courts can hear redistricting challenges.

A lawsuit alleging that Utah’s new congressional maps are an unconstitutional gerrymander will be able to go forward without delay, a judge has ruled.

Attorneys for the state had asked Third Judicial District Judge Dianna Gibson to delay the lawsuit until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an upcoming case out of North Carolina in which legislators there argue that the state supreme court had no authority to throw out the North Carolina maps for being gerrymandered.

The plaintiffs in the Utah case, representing the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, argued that waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling — potentially coming as late as June of 2023 — would mean the Utah lawsuit would not be resolved before the 2024 election and the current maps would remain in place until at least 2026.

In 2018, Utah voters approved the creation of a non-partisan redistricting commission to draw maps based on the 2020 Census. But Utah lawmakers rewrote much of the law, making the group purely advisory.

The Legislature then ignored the commission’s recommendations and drew its own maps, which split Salt Lake County — which has the highest concentration of Democratic voters in the state — into four districts. Independent analysis of the maps shows that each of the four districts overwhelmingly favors Republican candidates. The plaintiffs claim that leaves the roughly 30%-35% of residents who support Democrats without meaningful representation.

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to rule on a legal theory called the “independent state legislature doctrine,” which contends that state lawmakers alone have the power under the U.S. Constitution to regulate U.S. House and Senate elections and courts may not intervene.

Depending on how the court rules in that dispute, it could stop legal challenges in Utah and numerous other states around the country that contend voters are being denied meaningful representation by maps intentionally drawn by Republicans or Democrats to maximize the power of whichever party is in control.

However, Gibson ruled on Monday that because a few justices are willing to hear a case, “does not indicate how the Supreme Court may rule.” While the ruling — for which there is no clear timeline — might influence the case, Gibson wrote “that impact is unclear.”

And even if the Supreme Court rules that state lawmakers do have the final word on redistricting matters, there is another claim in the Utah case: The Utah Legislature allegedly violated the public’s right to pass laws via the ballot initiative process when they rewrote the voter-approved redistricting statute — that would still need to be heard.

“In balancing the competing interests, the mere possibility that the Supreme Court’s future decision in Moore may resolve some of the issues in this case does not outweigh the risk of denying plaintiffs the opportunity to seek timely relief,” Gibson concluded.

Gibson had been scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on the state’s motion to postpone the lawsuit but issued her ruling Monday. There is still a hearing scheduled for Wednesday to argue the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit entirely, based on the argument that the Utah Legislature and not the court should be deciding political issues.

“The people of Utah will have their day in court,” Katie Wright, executive director of Better Boundaries, which fought for an independent redistricting commission, said in a statement Tuesday. “We are energized by today’s decision in the Third District Court denying the State Legislatures’ motion to stay and delay justice. Legal maneuvering by the legislature remained unsuccessful and the voice of Utahns will be heard in court tomorrow.”