In a decision that surprised the attorneys on both sides, 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder Monday dismissed a contempt of court complaint filed against Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short.
The contempt complaint was brought earlier this summer by county commissioners, who cited 10 separate incidents they contend demonstrates that Short is refusing to obey a decision issued by Hilder in November.But Hilder ruled commissioners had erred by bringing the complaint against Short individually rather than in his official capacity as county attorney and tossed the case into legal limbo.
The judge noted the case referenced by the complaint was brought against Short in his official capacity, so any contempt actions will have to follow the same route. That means commissioners can refile the complaint as long as they bring it against the county attorney in his official role.
James T. Blanch, the attorney who represented the commission, said it's premature to speculate at this point whether the complaint will be refiled.
"We'll need to talk about the issues first," he said. "If commissioners choose to do so, we can reassert the same action."
Hilder said the burden will be on commissioners to prove that Short is in contempt of the previous ruling, and that some workable legal remedy is available to the court.
In his earlier ruling, Hilder found that Short must represent county officers except for limited circumstances, such as the county attorney having a conflict of interest or believing a certain course of action is a violation of law.
But commissioners contend Short, who maintains he represents only "the county" and not its individual officers, openly tries to circumvent the decision and continually defies Hilder's ruling.
Ironically, neither side requested dismissal of the case going into Monday's hearing.
Short's attorney, Larry Jenkins, argued his client should be immune from any economic or legal sanctions because the county attorney is covered by the state's Governmental Immunity Act.
He also said Hilder's ruling simply declared the relationship between the county attorney and the commission, but did not expressly command Short or prohibit him from any specific course of action.
Given the broad declaratory nature of the Hilder ruling, Jenkins contended, Short was acting within the scope of his office to determine which cases he should handle on behalf of the commission.
He added Short has "been trying to do his best to comply" with the ruling despite its broad language and lack of specific directives.
But Blanch insisted Short was willfully and intentionally taking a course of action opposite from the one mandated by Hilder last fall.
"Your honor is the victim of this," he told the court. "It was your order that is being ignored."
Blanch also contended the court should find Short in contempt as an individual because his disobedience is "outside his official capacity" as a county official.
Hilder said that while his original order may have been specific enough to justify a contempt complaint, the greater issue was whether Short could be held individually accountable when the case was not brought individually.
In the end, Hilder said "there's simply not a legal basis" for finding Short in contempt individually and sent commissioners back to square one in their efforts to have Short openly disciplined.