State courts and judges are under attack by conservative state legislatures across the country – and Utah state Rep. Brady Brammer’s bill HJR 2 reads like a battle plan to undermine the role and independence of Utah’s judicial system.
As of last summer, half of all U.S. states had proposed bills enabling legislatures to override court decisions or change procedural rules taking away or limiting courts’ independence and authority. Legislators giving themselves the power to override court decisions would be less threatening in states such as New Hampshire or Arizona, which have equal representation in state legislatures. But Utah’s Republican trifecta — Republican governorship, and a two-thirds supermajority in both the House and Senate — makes Utah’s need for a strong judiciary especially important.
The parallels for undermining court authority nationwide and Brammer’s HJR2 Resolution are uncanny. A Brennan Center for Justice report outlined bills passed or proposed in 25 states designed to undermine state courts and empower state legislatures:
1. Change the procedural rules. Brammer’s “joint resolution” amends the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Restricting courts’ authority over procedural rules effectively kicks the legs out from under judicial decision-making.
2. Prohibit state officials, including judges, from enforcing certain court decisions – HJR2 would give the legislature the power to retroactively reverse all stays and bans obliterating state judges’ authority.
3. Prohibit state officials, including judges, from enforcing certain court decisions – this is where and the 2/3 supermajority and HJR2′s neuter state courts.
4. Reduce judicial branch resources in response to decisions that displeased the legislature. Utah’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant goes hat-in-hand to Utah’s State Legislature each year asking for money for the Judicial Branch.
So what power does Utah’s Judicial system have to prevent a particular legislator like Brammer and the Legislature from passing a resolution giving itself enough muscle to retroactively reverse judicial rulings? Evidently none, because Brammer is pushing the resolution through and rewriting the rules with little resistance.
Take a moment and listen to the recording of Justice Durrant giving his State of the Judiciary address on Jan 17. The first part is presenting the judicial branch’s goals and priorities for 2023. The remainder is a respected judge being required to ask a part-time political body made up of 40% real estate developers, property managers and eviction lawyers for money to fund what once was an independent branch of government.
Kathy Adams is a writer who lives in Salt Lake City.