The Utah Supreme Court's ruling Monday that state law enforcement agencies must enforce the new spouse-abuse law until another court declares it unconstitutional makes a broad statement about the power of the Legislature.
Monday's ruling tells Utahns that laws passed by the Legislature "are to be deemed laws of the land," said Richard Strong, director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. "Those laws are to be enforced until the court declares them unconstitutional or unenforceable."Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam agrees with the sweeping implications of Monday's one-sentence ruling, but he believes the implications leave local governments open to lawsuits for enforcing laws that are later found unconstitutional.
The Legislature passed the spouse-abuse law during its last session. The law requires police officers to issue a citation to suspects of domestic violence, ordering them to stay away from a residence shared with the victim for at least 24 hours.
Van Dam said in June that the law was unconstitutional because it deprived domestic-violence suspects of their right to property without due process of law.
Following that opinion, Davis County officials held a press conference to announce that they would not enforce the law.
Strong's office took the issue - and the Davis County sheriff - to court. Gay Taylor, chief counsel for the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, argued the case on behalf of the Legislature. "To allow local or state entities to refuse to enforce a statute would undermine our constitutional system of government," she wrote in a brief to the court.
Taylor argued that local and state governments must enforce laws passed by the Legislature until a court - and not the attorney general - finds the law unconstitutional.
The Utah Supreme Court agreed. At the request of the Legislature, the court issued an extraordinary writ Monday afternoon directing Davis Sheriff Harry V. Jones "to enforce the provisions of Utah Code annotated 77-36-3.5, until and unless that statute is declared unconstitutional by judicial adjudication."
The Legislature did not ask state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the law, Strong said. But rather on enforceability of the law pending a lower-court ruling on its constitutionality.
"What about any law that is blatantly unconstitutional that is passed by any legislative body in the state - a county commission, a city council or the Legislature? The court is saying that we as lawyers for those entities can't advise our clients that a law is unconstitutional. If we do, the legislative body can still require the enforcement of that law in the face of big-time liability," Van Dam said.
If local governments are worried about the constitutionality of the spouse-abuse law, they can seek a declaratory judgment from the court, Taylor said. They can also seek an injunction against the enforcement of the law until the court rules on its constitutionality.
Taylor and Strong both expect the law's constitutionality to be challenged in district court.
Going to court - and not going to the attorney general's office - is the proper way to nullify a law passed by the Legislature, they said.
"We're obviously very happy with the ruling," Strong said. "The issue before the court was, when the Legislature speaks, is it E.F. Hutton? Do people have to listen?"
According to the Utah Supreme Court, they do.