For legislators, laws are like your children. You raise them from nothing, build them into legislation and fight for their success.
You also know when to let them go.
At least that’s how it’s always worked before. Now comes Senate Bill 171, a bill of dubious constitutionality that would turn legislators into helicopter parents.
SB 171 would grant the Legislature the right to intervene in lawsuits over the laws they pass, adding their voice to that of the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is charged with defending Utah’s laws in court. It wouldn’t replace the AG’s office. It would just give the state two voices, as if that would help.
The bill is apparently born out of frustration with the AG’s office, in particular over its refusal to release an opinion it gave Gov. Gary Herbert about his power to call the special election last year to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
This comes on top of a separate, also constitutionally questionable attempt to set up a legislative supercommittee to “oversee” (or interfere with) all other state and local entities. It’s all part of an effort to make the Legislature more muscular.
And it’s not just the governor and the attorney general they’re trying to muscle. It’s also the courts.
SB 171 would force a judge to accept the Legislature as an intervenor in a case, and that is a clear violation of the separation of powers at the heart of our constitutional system. It’s the courts that decide who gets a say in court.
What’s more, it’s the courts that decide what a legislative body intended when it passed the law. In other words, once passed, the bill child becomes a law adult. Legislators can stand outside the courtroom and tell the cameras what they meant when they passed it, but only their law speaks for them in court. It’s a system that has worked well for a couple of centuries, and the Utah Legislature is not going to unravel it.
The real problem here is that the Legislature can be pretty stubborn about accepting constitutional limits. How many times have we it them advance legislation merely to test its legal authority?
Instead of trying to follow their laws to their college dorm rooms, lawmakers should pass legislation that can stand on its own when the cord is cut. That’s what good parents do.