And now we are waiting.
The Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday held oral disputes in the now-year-long legal battle between the state of Utah and its own capital as to whether the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority by Utah legislation in northwest Salt Lake City violates the Utah Constitution .
It could take weeks, months, or even years for the five judges of the Utah Supreme Court to reach a decision – a decision that is significant not just for the future of the Utah Inland Port, a controversial project to maximize Utah’s position in the world It will affect the economy, and not just the future, of what the state called the Port Authority jurisdiction, about 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City, which is about 1⁄3 of the city’s last remaining buildable area.
Whether or not the Utah Supreme Court joins the state or Salt Lake City, the ruling will set an important precedent for what powers cities across the state of Utah have over land use or taxation.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a prepared statement released Wednesday after the arguments that Salt Lake City “has pursued this case because it is in defense of the traditional local government of all 249 cities and towns in Utah is Critical “.
“If the Utah Supreme Court rules in the state’s favor, it would have a devastating impact on communal land use and the tax authority,” she said.
The mayor said she was “very impressed” with the “clear and persuasive arguments of her city attorney,” and I look forward to a decision by the court.
The Utah Inland Port Authority referred the Deseret News to the Utah Attorney General when asked for comment on Wednesday’s hearing. The attorney general declined to comment.
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski filed the lawsuit in 2019 before stepping down after deciding not to run for re-election. Last January, Salt Lake City leaders suffered a severe blow in their litigation when a 3rd District Court judge dismissed the city’s arguments and ruled that the Port Authority did not violate the “Ripper Clause”. But Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has continued Biskupski’s battle and appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The state-city battle boils down to a key question: Have leaders violated the Ripper Clause of the Utah Constitution – a seldom-cited and somewhat vague section that seeks to strike a balance between state and city powers?
The clause, also known as Article VI, Section 28, states that the legislature “has no power to carry out, monitor or impair municipal improvements, funds, property or effects, regardless of whether they are held in trust, to a special commission, a private corporation or association may delegate or in some other way to collect taxes, choose a location in the capital or perform municipal functions. “
Salt Lake City attorney Samantha Slark argued that the state actually violated the Ripper Clause by creating the Utah Inland Port Authority, an unelected body that is now the jurisdiction’s tax hike or future growth controlled by property tax dollars and this requires the city to permit zoning for inland port.
“Here we have legislative interference with zoning and land use on behalf of private development,” Slark told the Utah Supreme Court. “We cannot forget that the inland port, essentially what it is, is a private development.”
Stanford Purser, assistant attorney general of Utah, argued on behalf of the heads of state that the state has not violated the Ripper Clause as it is in the power of the Utah legislature to create the Utah Inland Port Authority because it has a clear ” Serving National Interest ”, and so did Salt Lake City attorneys did not go on the“ very heavy burden ”to prove this violation.
“I think the city’s arguments have been more or less rejected,” Purser said, citing earlier case law. “Overall, I think the point is that the city can’t come in … and say, ‘That shows a clear violation of the Ripper Clause.’ It’s just not that. They just haven’t connected to the extent that there are other points that can be connected. Their reasoning doesn’t connect them, and they haven’t borne their heavy burden here. ”
Supreme Court justices questioned both prosecutors and city attorneys at the hearing on Wednesday when it was held online and challenged their claims. At least two judges, Justice Paige Petersen and Justice Deno Himonas, pushed the prosecutors, saying they had problems with their arguments.
“Your argument has to be more than,” It’s no longer (Salt Lake City’s) money because we took it away from them, “Petersen told Evan Strassberg, attorney for the Utah Inland Port Authority.” Because that’s the whole question before us is: Can you do that? What’s the argument that this is not municipal money? ”
Strassberg replied: “The state retains the power to divert funds before they reach the city.”
Himonas, in particular, struggled with the unelected Port Authority Authority being given the authority to spend taxpayers’ money in Salt Lake City.
“There is a fair part of it that gives the impression that there is now a unit that is not accountable – directly accountable – to the electorate and is spending taxpayers’ money that is only raised by the electorate in a specific area,” said Himonas . “I’ll tell you, that’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of all of this for me.”
At one point, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant puzzled the Port Authority attorney when he asked if the debate would not focus on the Salt Lake City tax revenue in question, what would be “community funds” on which the Ripper- Clause refers.
“In your opinion, is there such a thing as communal funds?” Asked Durrant. “So what municipal resources does the Ripper Clause apply to?”
Strassberg said he had not “thought this through” and was not ready to answer that question.
Deeda Seed, an activist with the Center for Biodiversity and the main organizer of Stop the Polluting Port, told Deseret News in an interview on Wednesday that she was “encouraged” by the judges’ questions.
“Those are the real questions and the defense lawyers’ answers have been ineffective,” Seed said. “And that is indicative.”
Seed, who also served as a councilor in Salt Lake City in the late 1990s, said the outcome of the case will have a major impact not just on Salt Lake City but on all cities across the state.
“If the Utah Supreme Court (rules) in favor of the law, this could happen anywhere in Utah, and it’s deeply worrying,” said Seed. “The decision on land use zones and property tax issues are communal functions, not state functions.
“This is the legislation that takes a local government out of control, and if they make it to Salt Lake City, they can go to Green River, to St. George, to Provo,” Seed continued. “Everywhere in the state this kind of illegal overreach is at risk.”