Can Utah ignore federal laws and regulations? Legal precedent says no, but legislators want to try.

The Utah Senate advanced a bill giving them the authority to declare federal actions unconstitutional.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, left and redistricting committee chairman Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, right, in the House Building, Room 30, Nov. 8, 2021. Members of the public were against the newly drawn redistricting maps on Monday, the only public hearing for the map proposals.

On Thursday, the Utah Senate advanced a bill to create a process that allows the Legislature to ignore federal laws and regulations if they think those mandates are unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that states do not have such authority.

SB 57 from Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, allows the Legislature to pass a resolution declaring any federal action unconstitutional. State officials and agencies would then be directed to ignore or not comply unless a court determines the action complies with the Constitution. That’s the inverse of the current process where states sue the federal government to block a law or regulation.

“There are times when I believe that the state of Utah has been harmed, and the citizens have been harmed through actions that the federal government has placed on the states,” Sandall said.

States have attempted to nullify federal laws and regulations several times. Those efforts have been rejected by the Supreme Court, which has held individual states do not have the authority to declare federal actions unconstitutional because of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, a lawyer, acknowledged that history and legal precedent do not give Utah the authority to ignore the federal government, but he supports the bill anyway.

“I went to law school, a good law school, and I don’t believe that Utah has the power to override the Supremacy Clause. Under the Supremacy Clause, as I understand it, the federal law trumps Utah” Weiler said. “But there’s nothing that I like better, and there’s nothing Utah likes better than sticking it to the federal government. If that’s the intent of the bill, I guess I’m all in favor of it.”

We could see lawmakers use this new tool to push back against the federal government sooner rather than later. If Sandall’s bill passes both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority, it will go into effect when Gov. Spencer Cox signs the legislation. Sandall acknowledged there are already a handful of federal regulations that the Legislature may target as soon as this legislative session.

“I know that in the air quality arena, the ozone level regulation that has been placed on the state of Utah, we can’t find a way or a lever to pull that would make us compliant with that simply because most of the ozone that comes into our state is not created here,” Sandall said. “I would be lying if I told you that I hadn’t thought of a few ideas that need to be vetted.”

Legislators said the process could be impacted and even rendered moot by the Supreme Court later this year. A concept called “Chevron deference,” named after the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, requires federal courts to defer to federal agencies on the interpretation and implementation of laws and regulations on everything from the environment to food and drug safety. The Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this week in a case that could overturn that precedent.

Several Senate Republicans are confident the Court is about to upend that standard, which has stood for 40 years.

“I do think the Chevron [deference] will be struck down in June by our Supreme Court,” Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said. “The problem that the Chevron [deference] created is it basically delegates to powerful federal bureaucrats the ability not only to interpret the law and enforce the law but, in some instances, to make the laws.”

SB 57 advanced on a straight party-line vote Thursday morning. It faces a final vote in the Senate before it heads to the House.