No one knows how much it could cost the state to defend its strict anti-abortion law, particularly if Utah loses and ends up paying legal fees of those suing the state, Attorney General Paul Van Dam said.
At a news conference Friday where Van Dam expressed his views about the recent legislative session, he said lawmakers gave him $100,000 to work on defending the nation's toughest abortion law. But that may not go too far.He said his office went through $100,000 "in a big hurry" defending the state against the most recent appeals of death row inmate William Andrews.
"A properly prepared lawsuit will cost a lot of money," he said.
The state anticipates that the American Civil Liberties Union will file a lawsuit within 30 days blocking the law from taking effect, Van Dam said, and that suit will likely be fought to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since Gov. Norm Bangerter signed the controversial bill into law, Van Dam's office has been poring over transcripts of hearings and examining the law itself. In addition to becoming familiar with the law, Van Dam must also decide whether to handle the case in-house or hire outside help.
But he noted that he has no control of legal fees the state would have to pay if the law is overturned by the high court.
He called the Legislature's intent to give the nation's top court an opportunity to address abortion "a momentous thing to do," and he said the attorney general's job is to give the law full justice.
The Utah law aims at the heart of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which held that states cannot interfere with a woman's right to choose an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Utah's new law permits abortion only to save the life of the mother, to prevent grave damage to her health or in cases where the fetus is known to have profound defects. Victims of rape or incest could have an abortion within five months if the crime were reported to police.
Van Dam has said the law appears unconstitutional in light of Roe vs. Wade, but the state can justify its attempt to defend it because of "strong indications by the Supreme Court to revisit this issue."
Indeed, Richard Wilkins, a former assistant U.S. solicitor general who honed the anti-abortion legislation, gives the bill a 50-50 chance.
Commenting on other legislation passed by lawmakers, Van Dam said:
- Passage of SB102, which gives his office and the state engineer guidelines on when Utahns can sell water to other states, was timely and needed relief.
Van Dam explained that when he first took office, a delegation of California water authorities approached him about selling so-called "excess water" to drought-stricken Southern California. But the attorney general had no policy on how to deal with such a request.
He anticipates future offers to buy Utah water, so the law outlining criteria when such a sale could take place was necessary to protect the state's water resources. "For the right price you could sell all the water in the state, but that is not in the public interest," he said.
- Creation of a state Department of Environmental Quality will work well with the attorney general's emphasis on enforcing state environmental laws.
- Increasing the fines and jail sentences for individual and corporate anti-trust violators will give the state more clout in prosecuting them.
- Raising and adjusting property taxes was a "reasonable solution to a tough problem" created by a state Supreme Court ruling that the state unfairly taxed AMAX Magnesium Corp.