Judge dismisses key counts of omnibus bill lawsuit

Education » The lawsuit contended SB2 was unconstitutional.
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A judge has dismissed key parts of a lawsuit that claims a 2008 education omnibus bill was unconstitutional.

The decision represents a victory for legislative leaders who say they sometimes have to combine many programs into one bill to pass laws efficiently. The ruling is a blow, however, to those who filed the lawsuit because they felt legislative leaders used the bill to force passage of unpopular programs.

A group of lawmakers, State Board of Education members and other education leaders filed the lawsuit last year, saying the bill, SB2, was unconstitutional. SB2 combined more than a dozen education programs, including some that had already failed on the House floor, into one bill that was passed on the last night of the 2008 legislative session.

On May 19, 3rd District Court Judge L.A. Dever decided to dismiss the first two counts of the lawsuit, which alleged SB2 was unconstitutional because it contained more than one subject and its title was unclear. Two counts still remain, but each of those counts addresses issues unrelated to the question of whether bills can contain multiple programs.

Kim Burningham, a State Board of Education member and plaintiff, said Tuesday he was disappointed by the ruling.

"Good decision-making takes place when each item is debated on its own merits," Burningham said. "To combine a series of items together, as this logrolling approach does, leads to bad decisions, compromise[s] decisions not in the best interest of the public."

David Irvine, a lawyer for the group that filed the suit, said plaintiffs might appeal the decision or file an amended complaint. He said the group still plans to move forward with the other two counts that have not been dismissed. Those counts allege lawmakers used SB2 to unconstitutionally delegate administration of some education programs to entities other than the State Board of Education.

Irvine said the plaintiffs would still like the judge to address the issue of whether combining many programs into one bill is constitutional. Irvine said Dever seems to have based his ruling on technical issues, rather than the central question.

In the ruling, Dever essentially said he dismissed the counts partly because the plaintiffs didn't present enough factual support for their claims.

"He's not saying that there's no merit to the litigation or that the ultimate claims are incorrect," Irvine said. "The ruling just says that it was not framed with enough factual reference points."

Legislative leaders, however, feel that the ruling vindicates them and the legislative process.

"It went right to the core of the Legislature's ability to constitutionally pass legislation," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who was Senate president when SB2 passed. "We have to be able to consolidate matters of the same subject into one bill or else we would not be able to do any business."

Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, said he's not surprised the counts were dismissed. He said he's always believe the lawsuit was politically motivated. The plaintiffs have said that's not the case.

Jerrold Jensen, assistant attorney general and an attorney for the defendants -- which include agency heads tasked with helping to carry out SB2 -- said the bill never violated the single subject requirement of the Utah Constitution.

"It's all public education," Jensen said.

The bill included programs such as an at-home software education program for preschool-age children called UPSTART, additional pay for math and science teachers and an arts education program, among others.

Irvine said he expects the legal battle over SB2 to continue for some time despite the ruling.

"I think everybody understands that this case will be in front of the supreme court no matter which side prevails," Irvine said.

What happened

A judge dismissed several key counts in a lawsuit over the constitutionality of an education omnibus bill, SB2, passed in 2008. SB2, which was passed the last night of the 2008 legislative session, combined many programs, including some that had failed on the House floor, into one bill.