Utah’s Supreme Court will hear the gerrymandering lawsuit. That could spell trouble, Robert Gehrke writes.

Delays in resolving the case could mean that Salt Lake County could be split into four congressional districts until 2026.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The Utah Supreme Court has agreed to consider the state’s appeal that a lawsuit alleging lawmakers gerrymandered Utah’s congressional districts should be thrown out — and it could create real headaches for the litigation going forward.

Here’s why: The worst-case scenario is that the high court took the appeal because they think the lower court was wrong when it rejected the state’s motion to dismiss and the justices intend to fix that mistake by tossing the lawsuit out of court.

The state has repeatedly argued that drawing districts is exclusively the responsibility of the Legislature and that the courts should have no role in reviewing or ruling on the fairness of districts.

The lower court didn’t buy that argument. However, if Utah’s high court justices agree with the state, it would be a death blow to the case and dash the hopes of anyone who believes that carving Salt Lake County into four pieces favors Republicans and effectively disenfranchised a significant portion of the county’s progressive voters.

But even if the Supreme Court doesn’t overrule the lower court and the litigation goes forward, the intervention is likely to gum up the works.

With the decision to hear the appeal, the lawyers hired by the Legislature have asked the lower court to halt any efforts by the plaintiffs — the League of Women Voters, Mormon Women for Ethical Government and several residents impacted by the new boundaries — to gather documents and other evidence from lawmakers involved in the process.

The plaintiffs have issued a flurry of subpoenas to the members of the congressional delegation, members of the independent redistricting committee, legislators who served on the redistricting commission and several others who voted against the new boundaries.

But the state’s lawyers have resisted tooth and nail, claiming that lawmakers enjoy “legislative privilege,” as well as other protections that mean they don’t have to produce any documents or answer any questions during the litigation.

If the Supreme Court dismisses the lawsuit, obviously those disputes wouldn’t matter, so there’s a good chance Judge Dianna Gibson will pause the proceedings in her 3rd District Court until the justices issue a ruling, potentially delaying the lawsuit for several months.

Assuming the case continues and Gibson rules legislators do have to produce documents and answer questions from the plaintiffs, that decision could get appealed to the Supreme Court, as well.

All of these procedural obstacles mean we aren’t likely to see a ruling on the actual merits of the case any time soon — and naturally, that ruling, when it comes, will also be appealed.

Obviously, if Gibson rules the congressional boundaries are fine, nothing changes and they stay in place until the 2032 election.

But if she finds that the districts did, in fact, deprive voters of their voice, the decision may not come in time to get new districts in place before the next election, meaning the old, potentially unconstitutional maps would remain in place until 2026.

And, while this litigation grinds on, taxpayers will be paying the Legislature’s attorneys $600 to $700 an hour for their services.

In a statement, the plaintiffs emphasized their belief that they will prevail in the end.

“Regardless of which court hears our case, the facts remain the same,” the plaintiffs said. “Utah’s legislature gerrymandered their congressional map to lock in power and undermined the will of voters in the process. We look forward to defending Utahns’ constitutional rights at the state supreme court so every vote counts equally and every voice is heard.”

I hope they are right and tend to think they are. But, as the familiar saying goes, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Utahns need to have this case heard and resolved in a timely fashion. Otherwise, we run the risk of depriving a segment of Utahns of the congressional representation they are entitled to as voters and citizens of this country.