For those who thought the Utah Legislature’s ethical reforms were about over – new laws passed in the 2010 session now in place and the citizen initiatives stalled with too few voter signatures – not so fast.
This week a special legislative ethics study committee came up with some new ideas.
And it may well be that in the future regular citizens could put before a soon-to-be-formed Ethics Commission real or theoretical legislative ethics problems
The commission could review those issues and make recommendations to standing House and Senate ethics committees.
In turn, those committees could accept, reject or amend the commission’s recommendations.
And, over time, a whole new body of ethical legislative conduct would be developed.
“I really like this idea,” says Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Interim Ethics Study Committee. “It can be so beneficial to the process.”
Urquhart, who has earned a reputation as one of the new idea/problem-solvers in the 104-member part-time Legislature, was responding to 17 specific suggestions made by leaders of Utahns For Ethical Government, the citizen initiative backers who hope to get on their petition on the 2012 ballot.
(More news on the initiative in following UtahPolicy articles. The Utah Supreme Court ruled this week that online signatures must be accepted by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that initiative petition signees’ names are public records. Both decisions will have bearings on the UEG petition signature effort.)
Urquhart’s idea: The new Ethics Commission – legislative leaders from both political parties are now shifting through names of persons they will appoint to the commission – would operate much like the current Judicial Conduct Commission.
The Utah Constitution says the Utah Supreme Court is the ultimate body to decide ethical conduct of judges. But the JCC hears initial complaints against judges – which can be made by anyone. The JCC can dismiss a complaint or make a recommendation to the high court, which in turn can dismiss, amend or adopt that recommendation.
Likewise, says Urquhart (who is a practicing attorney), the new Legislative Ethics Commission could hear complaints against legislators, review them on the facts, and then make rulings that would be accepted, amended or rejected by either the House or Senate ethics committees, or both.
But Urquhart goes a bit further.
The UEG says the LEC could take requests from lawmakers on a specific set of circumstances, and then issue a pre-emptive ruling saying that it is OK or inappropriate for the legislator to act in a certain way. If the LEC said it was OK, no ethics complaint could be brought later against the legislator.
Urquhart asks why citizens couldn’t make such What-If requests of the LEC. And through that process, legislative ethical case law, if we can call it that, would be written more quickly, with the public and lawmakers being guided as to appropriate actions.
The LEC – made up of three retired state judges and two former legislators – all appointed by legislative leadership from both bodies, both parties – would then, in private, review the matter.
For example, let’s say a legislator wanted to take a new private sector job with a firm that, on occasion, might have some business before the Legislature.
If the LEC reviewed the matter and said that was OK, then no complaint could proceed against the legislator at a later date for taking that job
Over time, both Urquhart and UEG attorney David Irvine said, in effect case law would be thus be written as the LEC ruled on more and more specific legislative ethical issues.
Where the two men differ is that Irvine would like the LEC’s recommendations to stand as accepted action. Where Urquhart says that such an ultimate ruling must come from the sitting House and Senate Ethics Standing Committees, since the state Constitution says the Legislature alone is the judge of its members conduct and ability to serve in the 75-member House and 29-member Senate.
If the interim committee follows Urquhart’s thinking, and should a new legislative Code of Conduct be adopted in the 2011 general session (drafting such a new code is the interim committee’s charge this summer), clearly the LEC will have a lot of work to do over the next few years.
For anyone with an interest in better defining legislative ethics could bring real or perceived issues before the LEC in an attempt to outline what is appropriate and inappropriate legislative conduct.
One can read the 17-point UEG legislative Code of Conduct issues at: www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org. You can listen to the interim committee’s Wednesday debate at: www.le.state.ut.us. Follow the links to the Interim Ethics Study Committee.
While UEG leaders would like the new Code of Conduct to say a lawmaker couldn’t serve on a non-profit board of directors, if the lawmaker was picked mainly because of his office and the influence that could bring to the non-profit, that suggest was not well received by both Republicans and Democrats on the interim committee.
Urquhart, naming several volunteer boards he sits on, said not only is his participation a good thing for himself, it’s a good thing for his community.
He adds that developing a new, more specific Code of Conduct comes with all kinds of unseen pitfalls.
If anyone can make any kind of claim of unethical conduct, “we get tons of press and we get rung up at election time,” Urquhart said.
But, if a complaint against a lawmaker is confidential in the initial review by the LEC, and if that is then dismissed by the LEC, then citizen-legislators get some protection from false accusations.
However, that dismissal – and the specifics of it – could still become part of official legislative ethics case law (without the lawmaker’s name attached). And thus citizens and lawmakers alike could see the ruling and be guided by it in the future.