The Utah Supreme Court says a lower court judge erred in refusing to address the question of whether Reps. R. Mont Evans and Janet Rose can continue to work for the state if they hold seats in the Utah House of Representatives.
In a short, one-paragraph ruling released Thursday, the justices reversed 3rd District Judge James S. Sawaya, who ruled he had no jurisdiction over the case."Our goal is to safeguard the integrity of the (Utah) constitution, and this ruling is consistent" with that goal, said Assistant Utah Attorney General Ralph L. Finlayson.
Finlayson and Assistant Attorney General Stephen J. Sorensen are carrying the ball for Attorney General David L. Wilkinson, who believes Rose, D-Salt Lake, and Evans, R-Riverton, should be fired from their state jobs as long they persist in holding legislative seats. Rose works in the Utah Department of Social Services, while Evans is a counselor at the Utah State Prison.
Evans, reached for comment Thursday, reacted soberly, reiterating his belief that a person's career should not affect his or her fitness to serve in the Legislature.
"I honestly believe everyone should have a right to be in the Legislature," he said.
The challenge from Wilkinson has put a cloud over Evans' entire term in the House, but he says he doesn't think it's affected his performance.
"I made it a point not to let that affect my legislation," he said. "I worked hard for my bills, and I got five through, which is pretty good for a freshman. But the thing that is most distracting is it takes away from my personal life. I have to take time off work to go to court. So it definitely affects other things."
But he said it has not soured him about his experience in the Legislature, and he has every intention of running for re-election.
Wilkinson believes holding simultaneous positions in both legislative and executive branches of government violates the separation of powers provisions of the Utah Constitution. He pursued that claim initially before the Utah Supreme Court after the House opted to seat Rose, Evans and Rep. Beverly White. But the Supreme Court, citing its own separation of powers rationale, said it had no jurisdiction to review or undo the Legislature's decision to seat the lawmakers.
However, the ruling left Wilkinson some wiggle room in that it suggested the question of whether the legislators could be forced to resign their state jobs could be litigated at the trial court level. In response, Wilkinson took the lawsuit to 3rd District Court, absent White, whose case was deemed more problematic by the attorney general, as she works by contract with the state.
But attorneys Dan Berman and Zane Gill, representing Evans and Rose, respectively, argued that the question of whether the legislators could be fired from their state jobs was essentially the same question as whether they should be kicked out of the Legislature. Sawaya bought that argument and ruled that he had no jurisdiction to review a question already determined by the Legislature.
Wilkinson appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, and the justices agreed with his contentions.