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Lands-Transfer Advocates Vote to Proceed With Lawsuit

Judy Fahys/KUER
Five lawyers from around the country advised the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands about their legal options. In the end, the commission voted 6-2 to proceed with preparing a lawsuit for consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Utah’s land-transfer advocates agree it's time to get a lawsuit ready for the U.S. Supreme Court after lawyers told legislators Wednesday that solid legal arguments support the quest to take over federal lands in Utah. They say it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to control so much land in the state. “It is not an easy path,” said the leader of the legal team, New Orleans attorney George Wentz. 

“But in terms of [the question:] 'is there a legal basis upon which Utah could make such a challenge?" it is our conclusion that such a basis exists.”

The legal advisors detailed key arguments in a report to the legislative panelformed to explore the lands-transfer question. They say a U.S. Supreme Court majority wants to hear state-federal balance cases just like this.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, voted against suing -- partly because of the estimated cost for a case that other legal analysts doubt.

“I am stunned by the $14 million dollar figure,” Briscoe said. “I am stunned that we’re talking about proceeding down a path that that’s our best guess should we get original jurisdiction.”

But supporters contend that Utahns have a duty to fight.

“It’s in our very nature to be free, to have liberty and property and govern ourselves,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, a West Jordan Republican who’s led the cause for nearly four years. “So it’s inevitable that we move this direction.”

The legal team estimated it will take six months or more to draft a brief. Attorney General Sean Reyes would have to sign off before the state can ask the nation’s highest court to consider the case.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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