I've written previously against Utah's one-party political system. That's not because I think we need to manipulate the system to ensure an equal balance between political parties, or some kind of political affirmative action. In large part, it's because I think a more open, less partisan electoral process would help us elect public officials who would provide better checks on one another and a citizenry that would be less complacent. When every statewide office, a supermajority of the Legislature, and five out of six federal offices are held by the same party, lawmakers and the public get sloppy, scratching each other's backs and trusting each other to the point of not noticing when bad laws are getting passed. In 2011, for example, the Legislature fast-tracked HB477, the open records law with sweeping changes to GRAMA. The bill was in essence a conflict of interest for every legislator, yet it passed both chambers at the end of the session, just two days after it was unveiled, with very little question or discussion. The public probably wouldn't have even heard about it except that when the media got wind of it, having a personal stake in the matter, it solicited much public outcry, which led to its repeal.
But what about other laws that have been passed the same way?
In 2008, after HB493 (Stalking Amendments) had already passed overwhelmingly and been signed into law with practically no debate, I got wind of it. The Legislature had made a complete overhaul to Utah's stalking laws, calling them technical updates for the Internet age and creating a law so broad and vague that virtually anyone could be charged with stalking. The law had been requested by the attorney general's office, and the sponsors were legislators who arguably had personal conflicts of interest. But when I contacted legislators, nobody was interested in taking any leadership to repeal it. To complicate matters, Utah allows for ex parte civil stalking injunctions by a preponderance of the evidence, the violation of which is a per se crime. And even more disconcerting is that the new stalking laws changed what had previously been somewhat difficult to accomplish legally — giving the attorney general's office, as well as insider Republicans, the ability to use law enforcement to win personal and political vendettas against annoying personal and political critics (e.g., in both State v. Guyon and Towner v. Ridgway, what was questionably stalking under the old law would have been slam dunks under the new law).
Another law drafted at the request of the attorney general's office, Utah's administrative subpoena law, allows for warrantless subpoenas. Due to the national spotlight on administrative subpoenas, Utah is now taking a second look at its law. But don't be fooled. This isn't a debate about protecting children from serious endangerment or protecting the privacy of potential perpetrators. Courts are set up for quick turnaround time on emergency warrants. It's about whether we'll allow for a serious abuse of power, since the law allows warrantless subpoenas to be issued when investigating stalking, previously discussed as a broadly-defined offense.
How many other laws don't we know about? With investigations into the attorney general's office, legislators are starting to see that it's possible for those within their own party to be corrupt.
But let's not wait for scandals. We expect our public officials to uphold the public trust and engage in all due diligence when considering laws. That means questioning everything, even if it's sponsored by friends and allies. Legislators, please find and review all corrupt laws that have been passed, no matter their source, and repeal them.
Tiani Coleman has a doctorate from Cornell Law School, is a past chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party and is a founding member of SureVote.org.
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