Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short has been dealt yet another blow in his legal fight against the Salt Lake County Commission.
A 3rd District judge ruled Monday that the commission's recent transfer of almost half of Short's deputy county attorneys, putting them under the commission's direct control, was legal.Commissioners said the move was needed because of Short's continual refusal to undertake legal work for county officers, impairing the operation of county government. Judge Robert Hilder agreed.
"This court will not prohibit the Commission from crafting a solution that is both cost-effective, and designed to avail the County of the services of experienced counsel who can efficiently render the needed assistance," Hilder wrote.
Hilder said attorneys in the newly created Office of Legal Counsel can only undertake duties that Short can't or won't perform either because of a conflict of interest or because Short refuses to represent county officers. Short's attorney, Larry Jenkins, jumped on that language in an attempt to put a positive spin on the ruling.
"(Hilder) makes it very clear that (the transferred attorneys) cannot do any duties of the county attorney's office unless the county attorney is demonstrably unwilling or unable to do them," he said. "Basically these eight lawyers are going to be sitting over there without much to do."
"That's baloney," countered commission attorney Randy Dryer. "Unless Doug Short is willing to do a 180-degree turn and recognize an attorney-client relationship (with county officers), these lawyers are going to be very busy."
Short has continually maintained that he represents only "the county" and not individual officers of the county.
While not saying so directly, Hilder is clearly frustrated with Short. Last November Hilder ruled that Short must represent coun-ty officers except in very rare circumstances, but Short has tried to get around that ruling in every way possible.
"(Short) continues to find exceptions to the rule on a far more frequent basis than this court could have anticipated in its November ruling," Hilder wrote. ". . . long as the county attorney seeks and finds conflicts that have either not previously existed, or have gone unnoticed for decades, the commission and other county officers will have significant need for separate counsel."
In his challenge to the transfer of his attorneys, Short argued that the commission is only authorized to hire expensive outside counsel for the cases Short refuses to deal with, rather than use the much less expensive attorneys already employed by the county.
"The judge squarely rejected Short's argument," Dryer said. "I think the court was recognizing the practical realities of the situation."
If the transferred attorneys start doing work they shouldn't do, Hilder left the door open for Short to repeat his challenge to the commission's action. While no one is saying for sure Short will go back to court, given the litigious history of this crowd the smart money says he will.
Hilder has yet to rule on a commission request to hold Short in contempt for violating the judge's November ruling.