SALT LAKE CITY — State legislative leaders voted unanimously Wednesday to pursue legal action to force the release of an attorney general's opinion on the special 3rd Congressional District election.
"The Legislature believes that the attorney general is required by law to provide the Legislature with the legal opinion," House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said in making a motion to initiate litigation at a special Legislative Management Committee meeting. The panel is made up of Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders.
Meantime, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said talks among the Legislature, the attorney general's office and the governor's office, which has objected releasing the document, to break the impasse outside court are underway. He said lawmakers did not start the communication but declined to say which office did.
"Suffice it to say discussions have been initiated. It really doesn't matter who. We all would like to resolve this without conflict. But we're going to insist our legislative prerogative is protected," Niederhauser said.
The opinion was sought by lawmakers earlier this year during their battle with Gov. Gary Herbert over what the Legislature's role should be in setting up the special election to fill the vacancy left when former Rep. Jason Chaffetz stepped down.
The governor, who set up the election without calling lawmakers into special session to approve the process, blocked the release of the opinion by Attorney General Sean Reyes by declining to waive attorney-client privilege. Reyes has not shared the opinion with the governor's office, either, Hughes said.
Legislative leaders say the opinion would be useful for them in drafting legislation for the 2018 general session to set up a process for filling congressional vacancies.
The State Records Committee, hearing a media request, voted last week to order release of the opinion. The attorney general's office has not said whether it will appeal, although Herbert's office called for a court review.
With the special election for the remaining year of Chaffetz's term set for Nov. 7, legislative leaders said it was time to deal with their concerns over what they see as a separation of powers issue.4 comments on this story
John Fellows, legislative general counsel, said he has not determined where in state court he would file a legal action, though the Utah Supreme Court is a possibility.
Reyes has cited ethical concerns over a potential conflict of interest because his office had advised the governor and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees elections, on how the vacancy should be filled.
Dan Burton, attorney general's office spokesman, said the office welcomes litigation to bring clarity to its role in such instances.