Utah Legislature sometimes protects the weak, George Pyle writes. And sometimes it doesn’t

Lawmakers moved quickly to protect some sexual assault victims. But other bills were wrongly targeted.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, adjourns the Utah Legislature from the House chambers at the Utah State Capitol, late Friday, March 3, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“There is no honor in attacking the weak.”

- Klingon proverb

The reason we have the rule of law, and not the law of the jungle, is that civilization at its core is an effort to protect those who need protecting. Sometimes from other people. Sometimes from the government.

This was the motivation for many of the actions taken in the recent session of the Utah Legislature. Sometimes they did it correctly. Sometimes they got it wrong.

Among the successes to be noted was a bill that inserted only one very long sentence in the Utah Code to make clear something that should have been obvious: That sexual abuse committed by a health care provider under the pretense of providing health care is not mere medical malpractice. It is sexual abuse, and the law should treat it as such.

Reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jessica Miller, in coordination with the national nonprofit investigative project ProPublica, recently revealed that a single physician who formerly practiced in Utah County had been accused by 94 different women of sexually abusing them in the course of what should have been medical examinations.

When those women sued the doctor for damages, their petitions were dismissed on the grounds that any bad act “arising” out of health care is defined as medical malpractice. And, under that definition, Utah law gives victims a far narrower window to bring a legal action and, even if they succeed, the amount of damages each victim can receive is capped at $450,000. When sexual abuse occurs in any other context, there is no cap on damages.

That information moved state Sen. Michael McKell to put forward SB247, co-sponsored by state Rep. Nelson Abbott. The sponsors got buy-in from two strong lobbies that often oppose one another - physicians and trial lawyers. The first committee hearing was Feb. 21 and, by March 2, it won final legislative approval. The Senate vote was unanimous. In the House, the final tally was 70-3. It is now on the desk of Gov. Spencer Cox, who should be just as swift in signing it into law.

To minimize the risk that it might later be challenged on constitutional grounds, the bill only applies to cases going forward. So it won’t help the victims who saw their cases tossed out. But, as many of them told The Tribune, they are heartened by the action to make sure future victims won’t run into the same roadblock to justice.

There were other actions by the Legislature that recognized the need to protect and otherwise assist Utah women and families.

• After years of doing everything they could to make the Medicaid program for low-income households as useless as possible, lawmakers this year agreed to a proposal from the governor to extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers from the scant two months previously provided to a full year. In a state, and a nation, with scandalously high maternal mortality rates, it makes sense to help women face common postpartum woes that include everything from high blood pressure to depression.

• In another move that was years in the making, the Legislature approved a bill that would allow - and fund - full-day kindergarten as an option for families in all of the state’s public school districts.

• Lawmakers took a stand against the epidemic of domestic violence by approving a measure that will better track such cases through the legal system, provide more training to law enforcement officers and require police agencies to implement a process called a “lethality assessment” to head off incidents before they become fatal.

Sadly, other measures approved in the 2023 general session were aimed at the wrong target.

• The rapid passage of a bill to prohibit gender-affirming treatment for transgender youth in Utah was sold as a step to shelter impressionable young people from making a serious mistake. But, in going against the advice of a near-unanimous medical community, and inserting itself into a matter that is for families, not government, to decide, the Legislature has committed an act of cruelty that will only increase the suffering, and threat of suicide, for those affected.

• Legislators’ mad dash to put abortion services - i.e., health care and bodily autonomy for women - beyond the legal reach of Utahns just kept getting worse. After the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly ended the protections of Roe vs Wade, Utah not only jumped to enforce a previous statute banning the procedure, lawmakers also moved basically close all of the state’s abortion providers, to deny rape and incest victims that kind of care after 18 weeks of pregnancy and to burden physicians with the duty to assure that those crimes had been reported to police.

• Lawmakers’ willful ignorance of biology extended to their treatment of other species, as they adopted a bill to greatly increase the number of cougars that can be killed throughout the state. This effort to mow down more of a species that may look scary, but is a vital part of a healthy natural ecosystem, was a big mistake. One that Cox might still prevent with his veto pen.

So we see that, sometimes, Utah lawmakers know where to spread the protective cloak of the law. And sometimes they don’t.