The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether courts should allow the state's Republican-majority Legislature to carve up Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County into four congressional districts.
The fight asks if state courts can evaluate whether district maps drawn by elected officials violate the state constitution and is the latest battle over how states draw such maps. It follows a recent landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling denying legislatures absolute power to do so.
Utah — along with Kentucky, New Mexico, New York,Pennsylvania, Maryland and Alaska — is among the states in which Republicans and Democrats have battled over whether partisan gerrymandering violates the law and imperils people's right to choose their representatives in a democracy.
Utah differs from those other venues, however, because voters in 2018 approved an initiative creating an independent redistricting commission designed to ensure maps weren't drawn to favor one party over another. Its power was stripped a year and a half later by the Legislature.
Seven voters and two advocacy groups — the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government — sued the Legislature last year over the maps passed in 2021. In their lawsuit, they argue the Republican-drawn map “takes a slice of Salt Lake County,” which is the state's most Democratic-leaning, “and grafts it onto large swaths of the rest of Utah.”
“The effect is to disperse non-Republican voters among several districts, diluting their electoral strength and stifling their contrary viewpoints,” their attorneys argue in court documents.
Attorneys for Utah want the state Supreme Court to dismiss the case and argue districting is solely a matter for the Legislature to decide, beyond the purview of the courts. If the case proceeds, a judge could potentially rule the maps unconstitutional and initiate a court-directed process to redraw districts.
The case is the latest high-profile redistricting battle and follows two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on maps drawn by state Legislatures. In 2019, the court ruled that district maps — and partisan gerrymandering claims challenging them — were outside the purview of federal courts and for states to decide.
Last month, it decided that lawmakers were bound by state constitutional restraints in drawing maps and said the state Supreme Court in North Carolina had the jurisdiction to review the state's maps. Attorneys for Utah in earlier court filings asked justices to delay their decision until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on that case, Harper v. Moore.
In opening arguments Tuesday, Utah's attorneys did not lean into the concept at the heart of North Carolina's arguments, known as independent state legislature theory; however, Utah's four congressional members relied heavily on the theory in a brief they filed in support of the state.
But similar to attorneys representing North Carolina, Utah's argued redistricting was a legislative matter and court intervention threatens the separation of powers between courts and legislatures.
The state tempered its arguments Tuesday. As Republican state lawmakers sat behind her, attorney Taylor Meehan acknowledged the Legislature did not have absolute power to draw maps. But she warned that court intervention risked injecting arbitrary standards into redistricting beyond the court's power.
“It’s replete in their claim that there are too many Republicans in the districts, and that is unfair,” Meehan said of the voters’ case. “The claim here is that it’s within this court’s power to redraw the lines and that it’s within this court’s power to decide whether a fair district is a 50-50 district in Salt Lake or a ‘safe’ district in Salt Lake, or whether a fair district is one that stretches across the entire state.”
Disagreement between attorneys representing Utah and the voters suing arose over how to interpret the U.S. Supreme Court's 2019 ruling that partisan gerrymandering wasn't a matter for federal courts to decide. Attorneys for Utah argued that the case suggested redistricting was for lawmakers. Mark Gaber, representing the voters, argued that limiting courts and ballot initiatives ran counter to the court's ruling that partisan gerrymandering was a matter of state law.
“If this isn’t what Justice Roberts envisioned as the solution — the people getting together and saying, ‘We’re going to exercise our power and stop this' — then I can't imagine how his words have meaning,” he said, referring to the 2018 voter initiative creating an independent redistricting commission.
It's not clear when the justices will issue a ruling.