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Utah's enforcement-only immigration law has drawn the attention of several foreign countries that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing the measure all warmly welcomed by groups suing the state in an attempt to block its implementation.
But on Thursday, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff got a friend of the court brief he'd rather have not seen.
The Immigration Reform Law Institute filed a 32-page amicus brief that Shurtleff said could actually be "harmful" to defending the case and, upon hearing about its filing, called the Institute and left a "terse" message for its chief legal counsel, Michael Hethmon.
"The attorneys I assigned to handle the case are highly qualified experts," Shurtleff said. "We do not need the amicus support of IRLI but we cannot prevent parties from filing them. It should be clear that they do not represent the state nor any public official."
The Institute is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has received negative attention from immigrants-rights groups for pushing for the repeal of birthright citizenship, reduced immigration levels and for its close affiliation with Kris Kobach, who was a key architect of Arizona's tough immigration enforcement law.
FAIR also was named a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 a charge FAIR labels "an orchestrated attempt at political retaliation."
Hethmon said Shurtleff's direction on defending Utah's HB497 was "weak" and he didn't trust him to engage in a robust defense.
"We suspect Mr. Shurtleff would personally be glad to see the law nullified and that he views any public debate on this point as a threat to his image as political kingmaker in state politics," Hethmon wrote in an email.
Shurtleff said by having FAIR's legal arm involved, it "plays into the false notion that our law is as bad as every other state's law" that is enforcement-only.
The tussle behind the scenes is in stark contrast to the plaintiffs who sued Utah and are seeking an injunction in federal court in February that would prevent HB497 from going into effect. U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups already issued a temporary restraining order last year, so the law was only in effect for a few short hours.
The law, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, began as a mirror of Arizona's SB1070 law which will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this spring. Utah's version requires local police to check the legal status of a person arrested or detained on suspicion of a felony or Class A misdemeanor. However, it gives discretion to local police to check the legal status of those nabbed for lesser crimes.
Shurtleff has argued the plaintiffs the Justice Department along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center have built their case around the idea that HB497 is a copycat of Arizona's law. He said that is wrong and plans to prove it in court.
And he doesn't want help from the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
"As mandated by law, my office and I are zealously defending the lawsuit challenging HB497," Shurtleff said.
Hethmon, chief legal counsel for the Institute, didn't appear to be too confident in Shurleff's abilities.
In the email with the brief attached, the subject line reads, "FYI After Shurtleff wimps out on HB497 defense IRLI files amicus brief attacking feds prosecution."
Hethmon, in a separate email also wrote the angry voice mail left by Shurtleff was "the first communication I have ever had with the man after working on the issue with concerned citizens of Utah since 2009."
This is the second time there's been a dust-up over amicus briefs filed in defense of the law.
In December, a group of lawmakers sought to employ Sean Reyes a candidate for Utah attorney general to work with the Attorney General's Office in defense of the law. But Shurtleff quashed the move and Sandstrom said he wouldn't support having another attorney work the case in defense of his law.
However, Sandstrom said Thursday he supported the Institute's amicus brief, noting that "anyone can file one."
"I'm not an attorney," Sandstrom said. "I have the utmost confidence in our attorney general and his ability to defend HB497."
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield and one of the lawmakers who had initially sought help from Reyes, said he had trouble understanding Shurtleff's consternation on the filing.
"Why wouldn't this be helpful?" Oda asked. "They're the ones who defended the Alabama law and Alabama's is more stringent than ours."