It took holding a vote open for longer than usual, and some close margins in the Senate, but the Utah Legislature overrode two of Gov. Gary Herbert’s vetoes on Wednesday.
SB171, which grants the legislature the ability to intervene in legal matters involving their actions, narrowly got the 2/3 vote needed in the Senate to roll over the veto issued by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this month.
Herbert vetoed the bill because he worried it could lead to confusion in court matters with two sets of lawyers claiming to represent the interests of the state. He argued that was an infringement on the powers of the executive branch, specifically the Attorney General who is tasked with defending the actions of the legislature when challenged in court.
Some senators worried the bill went too far, giving lawmakers the right to intervene in a court matter concerning “any action of the legislature.”
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, worried that language gives the legislature carte blanche in legal matters.
“This goes further than what would be good public policy,” he argued.
The Legislative Management Committee would ultimately decide which lawsuits to get involved with, and Bramble says, while unlikely, that could lead to a scenario where the group could abuse that power.
“We’ve seen examples where a small group of engaged and passionate people throw wrenches in the works,” he said.
However, supporters of the override didn’t see the measure as an infringement on the powers of the executive, especially since the Attorney General is a political rather than appointed position. What happens when politics clash with the actions of the legislature?
“The real problem in my view is we have four branches of government, with the Attorney General being the fourth,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. “Who ultimately decides what court actions we can take and what arguments are made? The AG is a political position. What happens if they have different priorities?”
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, was blunt in his assessment of the impact of SB171.
“This is the kick-off to political interference in lawsuits until the cows come home,” said Dabakis. “I think this group has a very high opinion of itself…that the greatest wisdom rests solely in this body. This says we want to be involved in every decision, and that’s not healthy.”
The Senate voted to override the veto of SB171 21-7, while the House overrode Herbert’s veto 55-15.
Legislators sought to avoid another situation where they ask the Attorney General’s office for a legal opinion but are stymied by the governor claiming attorney/client privilege. That scenario played out last year with lawmakers clashing with Governor Herbert over a requested opinion from Attorney General Sean Reyes on who should set the rules for last year’s special congressional election. HB198 directs the AG’s office to provide a legal opinion for the legislature when asked and sets parameters for how the AG can avoid a similar conflict in the future.
The House made short work of their override of Herbert’s veto of HB198, voting to nullify Herbert’s decision 63-1 with no floor debate. The Senate was able to get the 2/3 vote needed to reverse the veto by a 20-8 margin, but not without drama. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, kept the vote open for several minutes as the body was one vote short of the needed 20. Ultimately, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, cast her affirmative vote to complete the override.
Lawmakers also overrode a line-item veto on a budget bill related to SB171. Lawmakers appropriated $700,000 hire lawyers and staff to defend bills in court. Gov. Herbert nixed that funding when he vetoed the bill, but lawmakers restored the funding.