M. Gay Taylor

Consider her the mother of more than 8,000 state laws.

M. Gay Taylor, who has been the lead attorney for the Utah Legislature for nearly a quarter century, is retiring at the end of this month. And with her goes a professional lifetime of institutional memory of all the laws legislators have passed over the years and the thanks of hundreds of legislators, some long gone from the scene.

When Taylor was named general counsel of the Legislature in 1985, she was probably the only woman to head the legal staff of a state legislature — which drafts bills and represents lawmakers when they are sued. Now, female attorneys make up much of the lawmakers' staff, both in Utah and across the nation.

"I always found it more fulfilling to be on the creative side of lawmaking — writing the bills — not the head-banging side of litigation," says Taylor, 54.

She has argued half a dozen cases before the Utah Supreme Court, argued before federal courts and was present at the U.S. Supreme Court when Utah's case for a fourth U.S. House seat was (unfortunately for the state) denied several years ago.

"Gay will definitely be missed," said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, an attorney who has been in the Legislature for 20 years. "Gay is one who sits on the back row (of a meeting) unassumingly. Then you ask her her opinion and you realize that she has not only a great understanding of the law, but also of the legislative process of how that law came to be."

Taylor says she's sat in a room and calmly told a Utah legislator that while his bill may be "squarely unconstitutional," she and her staff attorneys would do their best to make it more likely to pass constitutional muster, should it become law.

"There have been times when legislators wanted to push the envelope" on constitutional law, like when in the early 1990s a Cache County representative wanted to place greater restrictions on legal abortions in Utah.

"We (attorneys) don't decide if a legislator should carry" a bill that may have constitutional problems, she said. "They decide. We are here to help them draft it as best we can."

Always the professional, when asked if she is a conservative Republican or liberal Democrat, she replied: "I hold those feelings close to the vest. That's why I've survived so long here."

Single for much of her career, 18 months ago Taylor married a widower with six grown children and 20 grandchildren.

"I got an instant family," she said. "Now I want to spend more time with them, maybe serve an LDS mission with my husband, travel some and maybe teach law."

One university, in fact, has already come knocking.

Asked to name some of the legislators — past or present — she most admired, Taylor pauses. "There are so many, including the (now-sitting) Legislature." But she says she admired the late Sen. Warren Pugh for his statesmanship, along with former Sen. Karl Snow (who 35 years ago was head of the legislative staff before Taylor's time). Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, a fellow attorney, is one of her current favorites. And she had a fine working relationship with former Senate President Al Mansell.

One of the most painful experiences in Taylor's long legal career actually came last year. By law, her office must draft the official, impartial language for any ballot proposition. So she and her staff attorneys wrote the Voter Information Pamphlet language for the public school voucher referendum — a bitter controversial issue.

Some legislators were angry by the wording.

"Basically, our clients were split splint over it," she said. "Our hope was at least we would get sued by both sides. And finally it worked out that way. The Utah Supreme Court ruled that we did a good job in drafting the language. It was really a coup for this office, I was very glad over that."

House and Senate legislative leaders from both political parties have decided that 22-year-legislative veteran attorney John Fellows, who was Taylor's deputy, will be the new general counsel. The appointment was approved Wednesday by a hiring subcommittee and will be finalized by the Legislative Management Committee next week.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com