A recent dust-up over a sitting legislator's letter on behalf of a convicted sex offender raises the question of when a lawmaker should use his title to make a recommendation in a court case, and it shows how one's best intentions often go awry.
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better UTAH, recently wrote an open letter to Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, which she shared with the media. It chastised Harper for using his title as a state legislator in a letter of support he wrote for Eric Ray, who was convicted of forcible sex abuse based on his conduct with a then-15-year-old girl.
"We are concerned that you appear to have crossed an ethical line by using your official capacity as a member of the State Legislature to influence the Court's sentencing," wrote Martindale. "While your motives may have been well-intentioned, we believe that Eric Ray's victim, her family, similarly situated victims, your constituents and the citizens of Utah deserve an apology for what appears to be an abuse of the power of your position for the sake of a convicted felon."
As Ray faced sentencing in 4th District Court, Harper wrote a letter in support of the defendant. "I believe he can use his knowledge and experience to help others again and is ready to right his errors and become again a positive and contributing member of society," he wrote. "I expect great things from him in the future and that he will do good in the community and in his future life and work."
Ray was a former intern for Harper at the Legislature and Harper says he wrote the letter at the request of Ray's mother. Harper said he sent the letter to a parole officer preparing the pre-sentencing report and never intended that it go to the judge. He insists he was not trying to use his position as a legislator to influence the judge.
In the end, it appears Harper had little sway over Judge Lynn Davis, who sentenced Ray to one to 15 years in prison.
Harper has been a state representative for 16 years and was most recently chair of the House Rules Committee. He was elected this year to the State Senate to fill the seat of retiring Senate President Michael Waddoups.
Separation of Powers? • Harper's letter on behalf of Ray isn't the first time a lawmaker's support of someone involved in the courts has come under scrutiny.
When Dewey MacKay, a Brigham City doctor, was convicted in federal court of illegally prescribing painkillers and was eventually sentenced to federal prison, he received letters of support from Congressman Rob Bishop and state Sen. Pete Knudson. Their letters had little persuasion as well, since MacKay was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
And after former state Sen. Chris Buttars wrote a letter scolding a 4th District Court Judge over a ruling the judge made against Buttars' friend, developer Wendell Gibby, in a zoning dispute with Mapleton, the Senate passed an administrative rule limiting what communication lawmakers can have with judges while a case is in progress.
Even if Wayne Harper was already in the Senate, he didn't violate that rule because communications to court administrators or clerks are allowed, as long as they are not sent to the judge directly.