Former justice court Judge Lorin Facer was 62 days away from a retention election in 1994 when the Box Elder County Commission abruptly removed his name from the ballot.
Facer had already paid his filing fee, filed his notice of candidacy and fully expected to retain the office he had held the previous four years.But on Sept. 6, commissioners decided the county's small case-load didn't warrant two judges and passed a resolution combining the precincts. Facer's was effectively abolished.
Tuesday, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled the commission had no right to take that action and ordered an "appropriate remedy" for Facer.
"I'm very, very pleased," Facer said after winning his four-year legal battle. "It (the law) seemed clear, and I felt I should pursue this case in the interest of justice for me."
The dispute began on Sept. 30, 1994, when Facer asked the county clerk to reinstate his name on the ballot. Acting on the advice of the county attorney, the clerk refused, and Facer went to court.
He based his lawsuit on a law that said, "No precinct or election district shall be established or abolished, nor may the boundaries of any precinct or district be altered or changed in the 90 days prior to any election."
Less than three weeks before the Nov. 8 election, 1st District Judge Ben H. Hadfield ruled the state law referred to election precincts, not justice court precincts.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the law was enacted at the turn of the century to give stability to the political nomination and election process.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice Richard Howe said, "It seems obvious that candidates for precinct offices should not be subjected to the risk that while they are seeking nomination, the precinct may be abolished or the boundaries altered so as to defeat or affect their chances for election."
If allowed to change those boundaries after the nominating process is complete, county commissions could influence the outcome of elections and even eliminate candidates they don't like, the court said.
In Box Elder County, Facer had met all the requirements and had even been included in the official state voter information pamphlet when the county abolished his precinct.
"The disruption to the election process could not have been greater," Howe wrote.
And the court also rejected the county's alternative argument that it had complied with the 90-day rule because the resolution abolishing Facer's precinct didn't take effect until Feb. 5, 1995, a five-month interval.
Salt Lake attorney Karra J. Porter, who represented Box Elder County, said the county is disappointed but believes its interpretation of the law was correct. She said a recent legislative amendment that applies the law more specifically to election precincts supports the county's view of legislative intent.
As for the "appropriate remedy" ordered by the court, Facer said he isn't sure what the court had in mind but will discuss the options with his attorney, Phillip W. Dyer.
Porter said she isn't sure either but suggested the remedy may not amount to very much. That's because all the parties to the lawsuit conceded the county could have passed the resolution one day after the election and abolished Facer's precinct 90 days later, she said.
In other words, Facer could have legally been removed from the job on Feb. 9, just five weeks into his new term.