Utah Republican lawmakers vote to make rare stand against judge’s block of Utah’s abortion trigger law

The trigger law has been on hold since June, when Planned Parenthood Association of Utah filed a lawsuit to stop it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Representatives work on the house floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session. During an interim committee meeting on Nov. 15, 2022, members of the Legislative Management Committee voted to submit an amicus brief opposing the injunction on the state’s abortion trigger law.

In a vote split along party lines, the Utah Legislature’s Legislative Management Committee voted Tuesday to submit an amicus brief opposing the injunction on the state’s abortion trigger law.

The motion was put forward by Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, but, he said, was an idea from “multiple people.” The Utah Attorney General’s office is currently fending off a challenge of the law by Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

Passed in 2020, Senate Bill 174 created a trigger law that would ban most abortions in the Beehive State if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned Roe v. Wade.

In a statement following the committee’s vote, the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said, “We will continue to vigorously defend the unborn and prohibit elective abortion, standing up for those who cannot defend themselves.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Dan McCay speaks at a rally sponsored by Abortion Free Utah and other groups at the Capitol to celebrate the end of Roe v. Wade, on Saturday, July 2, 2022.

The abortion ban was blocked by 3rd District Court Judge Andrew Stone with a temporary restraining order just days after the U.S. Supreme Court said in Dobbs v. Jackson that there is no constitutional right to an abortion, then again in July by a preliminary injunction. In Utah, abortions are currently legal until 18 weeks, at which point they are prohibited with limited exceptions.

The Utah Attorney General’s office asked the state Supreme Court in August to allow it to appeal the injunction. The court is currently hearing that appeal, but declined to immediately lift the hold.

“I believe that what we did was constitutional, I believe this motion is in order,” Adams said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Although the Legislature is not a party in the pending lawsuit, it has the ability to express its opinion to the court through a “friend of the court” brief. Taking that action, however, is rare.

In response to a question from state Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, regarding other instances in which the Legislature proactively submitted an amicus brief, its general counsel, John Fellows, said, “Boy, that’s a good question. You’re making me dredge up things from my memory. I’m not prepared to answer that. We’ve done two or three, probably.”

An attorney from the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, Fellows said, will be pulled off of legislative work in the run-up to the 2023 lawmaking session to focus on litigation. That attorney will draft the brief, which was approved 8-7, with all seven Democrats on the committee voting against it.

“I feel like if we’re going to do something like this and make it a standard, what I want to make sure is that we have good legal ground to doing it that we’re not doing it for political reasons or political arguments. But we’re on solid legal ground and we have the backing of our attorneys, as well as the law in making these arguments,” said Sandy Democrat Rep. Andrew Stoddard.

Pushing back, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said, “Whatever the feelings on the merits of the underlying case, I think it’s important for the Legislature to support its legislative prerogative in these types of matters.”

Abortion policy is expected to be a major topic addressed during the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. Lawmakers have so far opened four bill files on the subject, including one from McCay that would propose amending Utah’s constitution to address abortion rights.

“My commitment to life does not end at birth,” Adams said in a statement released after the vote. “We are working to make adoption easier in Utah. By enhancing resources, we can eliminate barriers to adoption and provide financial support to expecting mothers. Together, we must work to protect and defend every life — mothers, children and families.”

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