Utah Supreme Court Reverses Dismissal of Open and Public Meetings Act Cases

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance lawsuits challenging secret 2017 meetings held between Kane, Garfield and San Juan County Commissions and Trump officials can proceed

Contact: Laura Peterson, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.236.3766
David Reymann, Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, 801.257.7939
Troy Booher, Zimmerman Booher, 801.924.0200

Salt Lake City, UT (February 25, 2021) – This morning, the Utah Supreme Court issued two related opinions in long-running lawsuits brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) alleging that (1) the Kane and Garfield County Commissions and (2) the San Juan County Commission violated Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act when they each met privately and in secret with Interior Secretary Zinke (and in the case of San Juan County, other DOI officials in Washington, D.C.) in 2017 regarding Zinke’s report on the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. These meetings preceded then-President Trump’s unlawful dismantling of those monuments. President Biden has pledged to swiftly undo Trump’s actions.

“We’re grateful the Supreme Court has cleared the way for these important lawsuits to proceed,” said Laura Peterson, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “SUWA members and the broader public had every right to know what these commissioners were saying behind closed doors about the fate of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.”

The Supreme Court reversed the district courts’ decisions to dismiss these cases at their earliest stage and concluded that (1) SUWA has legal “standing” to bring these cases (is the right party to do so) and (2) the allegations in SUWA’s lawsuits about the private meetings touching on how the hoped-for monument reductions would impact matters within the “jurisdiction or advisory power” of the commissions are sufficient for the cases to proceed. The cases will be remanded back to district court.

The Supreme Court also (1) reversed Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson’s decision in the case involving the San Juan County Commission to sua sponte (on his own accord and without a motion by the County) sanction SUWA for filing the case and order that SUWA pay the County’s attorney’s fees and (2) reversed Sixth District Judge Marvin Bagley’s decision in the Kane and Garfield County case that SUWA had brought its case in bad faith and order that SUWA pay the Counties attorneys’ fees. With regard to Judge Anderson’s decision, the Supreme Court specifically called out Anderson’s inappropriate “independent factual research” as contrary to the Judicial Code of Conduct.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was represented in the San Juan County case by Troy Booher, Dick Baldwin, and Frederick Voros with the Salt Lake City law firm Zimmerman Booher, and Laura Peterson and Stephen Bloch at SUWA. SUWA was represented in the Kane and Garfield County case by David Reymann and Austin Riter with the Salt Lake City law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless.  Friend of the Court briefs were filed in each case on SUWA’s behalf by the Deseret News, Fox 13 KSTU-TV and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, represented by Edward Carter with the Orem firm Keen Law Offices.

Update March 19, 2021: Today, SUWA dismissed its lawsuits against Kane, Garfield and San Juan Counties over their 2017 violations of Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act. With the Utah Supreme Court’s recent decision, we affirmed that SUWA and its members have a right to ensure that the public’s business be conducted out in the open and that SUWA should not be punished for trying to hold public officials accountable.

Four years after filing the lawsuits, with Secretary Zinke and President Trump no longer in office, it is time to move on. We will continue to work to ensure that Utah elected officials conduct public business in an open and transparent manner, consistent with Utah law.

Additional Resources 

Southern Utah Wilderness v San Juan County opinion.

Southern Utah Wilderness v Kane County opinion.

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