Senate Republicans are being told to watch what they say after Sen. Chris Buttars' latest controversy, this time over a letter the West Jordan Republican wrote to a judge he helped confirm, complaining about the judge's ruling against one of Buttars' friends.
"Be careful with your communications" is the message that Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, gave Wednesday. He has brought up the issue repeatedly during the GOP's closed-door caucuses. "We live in a fishbowl and everybody is constantly looking through the fishbowl. Remember what your communications mean."
Valentine removed Buttars earlier this week as the head of the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee after Buttars' May 3, 2007, letter to 4th District Judge Derek Pullan became public.
In the letter, Buttars criticized the judge's ruling against Wendell Gibby in a long-running eminent domain battle with Mapleton. The state senator's letter concluded, "I am embarrassed in this case to have supported your appointment."
Buttars ran into trouble earlier this session after making what have been described as racist comments that led the NAACP to call for his resignation. House leaders refused to consider a bill targeting Salt Lake City's new domestic registry until Buttars was replaced as its sponsor.
Valentine declined Wednesday to say whether he would have taken action against Buttars' position in the judicial confirmation process had Buttars not already been embroiled in controversy over labeling a bill a "black baby" and calling it "a dark and ugly thing."
"Just look at the statement," Valentine said, referring to a posting to the Senate majority's blog that stated while Buttars was exercising his "right to communicate his opinion privately with another public official" in his letter to Pullan, once the letter became public, Senate leaders were concerned it "may now have a negative effect on the confirmation process of new judges."
Valentine said Wednesday he is defending Buttars' right to express himself. "I don't have control over what any individuals do in any body. But what we do have is we do have a process that says, 'Be reasonable, be responsible with your communications."'
The Senate president said Buttars "really, truly believed that there had been an injustice. He felt like he should communicate that belief. He didn't call for action, he didn't say, 'I'm going to get you.' He said, 'I'm really disappointed."'
Some attorneys in Utah are troubled by what they see as an attempt by a member of the Legislature to influence the decision of a judge in an ongoing case. The Utah State Bar has received numerous communications from Utah attorneys who have expressed concern that Buttars has caused one branch of government to encroach on another.
"Any ex-parte communication attempting to influence a decision in an ongoing case is inappropriate," said State Bar executive director John Baldwin.
Bar president V. Lowry Snow has indicated that Buttars' removal from the chairmanship does address part of the bar's concerns.
Baldwin said the bar feels there is a need for "broader education" among lawmakers of the importance of a fair and impartial judicial system. He said the bar was not about to take specific issue with Buttars' letter but that any appearance of inappropriate influence on a judge should be dealt with.
There are indications that Senate leadership knew about Buttars' letter as early as last June. The Senate majority blog posting states that Valentine and others saw an early draft and that the Senate president "offered some suggested edits."
Rick Schwermer, assistant state court administrator, said Pullan brought the letter to the attention of a member of the Utah Judicial Council, chaired by Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham.
Schwermer said the judicial council forwarded the letter to court administration, who then sent it to Valentine last June.
Baldwin said the bar doesn't want to jump into the political fray over this issue but said lawmakers need to be aware that there is a reason Utah government has a separation of powers. "There's a reason why we have checks and balances," he said.
As co-chairman of the Judicial Retention Election Task Force, Buttars spent last summer calling for change in the way judges are evaluated and retained.
He sponsored a bill, SB105, that would take the job of evaluating judicial performance away from fellow judges and place the task in the hands of a new bipartisan commission whose members would be appointed by the three branches of government.
Many judges, including Durham, have said there is nothing wrong with the current evaluation system and do not believe the bill is necessary.
Valentine said the bill was an attempt to strike a balance.Buttars has not commented on the letter or the loss of his committee chairmanship. He has said he will run for re-election in November and has apologized several times for his statements, including to the largely black congregation of the Calvary Baptist Church.