SALT LAKE CITY — A unanimous Utah Supreme Court has ruled that partisan State School Board elections are constitutional.
The court overturned a 2017 decision by 3rd District Court Judge Andrew Stone, who ruled that SB78, passed by state lawmakers in 2016 and established partisan State School Board elections beginning in 2018, violated the Utah Constitution.
The high court’s ruling reinstates SB78, which means people who want to run for the Utah State Board of Education can file as partisan candidates beginning in 2020.
Over the years, the method by which Utah elects State School Board members has been frequently contested. In 2014, a process that allowed the governor to select candidates for the State School Board ballot was declared unconstitutional.
The Utah Legislature then passed SB78 in 2016, which allowed a non-partisan ballot for that year’s election cycle but called for partisan elections starting in 2018. Current and former members of the State School Board, the Utah PTA, Utahns for Public Schools and the ABU Education Fund challenged the law in district court. The lawsuit named Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as the sole defendant. The law was on hold while the case was litigated
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes nearly a year after it heard oral arguments in the state’s appeal of Stone’s ruling.
The court rejected the policy arguments against SB78 “as outside our judicial role. We reverse the district court and reinstate SB78.”
Much of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court centered on whether members of the State School Board are state employees.
Declarations and briefs filed by the plaintiffs, who included current board member Carol Lear, stated board members are provided state-sponsored health insurance and paid a salary from which the state withholds federal and state taxes.
The plaintiffs asserted that SB78 was an unconstitutional violation of Article X, Section 8 of the Utah Constitution. It provides that “no religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as condition of employment, admission or attendance in the state’s education system.”
The state maintained State School Board members are elected officials, not employees, so Article X, Section 8 does not apply.
The Supreme Court’s ruling says “ambiguity may exist regarding the board members’ status as employees.”
However, the Utah Constitution — both in the original 1896 enactments and the 1986 amendments pertaining to the organization and definition of the state’s education systems— “omits board members from being in a condition of employment in the state’s education systems,” the court wrote.
Lear said only that the ruling was “a disappointing decision.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney David Irvine said the history of SB78 is that “the Legislature has wanted to do this for a long time and the court decision cleared the decks for that. I think the Legislature’s position on partisan boards is now crystal clear and I don’t see that changing.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the practical effect of the ruling is that “we’re going to see probably partisan school board elections next year, in 2020.”
Weiler said he believes the decision will provide more clarity for voters because the state school board’s 15 members represent nearly twice as many people as Utah’s 29 state senators.
“As a result of that, the public, a lot of the time, doesn’t know who they’re voting for. I don’t think anyone can argue these candidates are well vetted because it’s kind of a shot in the dark. You can’t knock on the doors of 230,000 people. You just can’t do it,” he said.
If candidates run as partisan candidates, “from voters’ perspective, it’s probably going to make it more user friendly,” he said.
Although the Supreme Court rejected policy arguments as beyond its judicial role, neither Weiler nor Irvine foresee the Utah Legislature taking up the issue of partisan state school boards again.
“I don’t see them undoing it since now they’ve won in court,” Weiler said.
During the 2019 session, Utah lawmakers passed SB236, which, pending the Supreme Court decision, clarified that a candidate for the State School Board may run as a member of a political party, unaffiliated or as a write-in candidate.
Irvine predicted the Legislature’s next move “would be to make local boards of education partisan as well. I don’t think that’s a great idea but I think that’s what the Legislature wants to do.”
Josh Kanter, board chairman of the Better Utah Institute, formerly known as the plaintiff ABU Education Fund, issued the following statement:
“We continue to firmly believe that partisan politics has no place in our schools. We have always believed that our children’s education should be insulated from the extreme partisanship that grips our nation and is making inroads into our state.”
Kanter said the court’s ruling was disappointing, but the institute respects the court’s decision.
“While the court disagreed with our arguments on constitutional interpretation, the justices made clear they were not making a judgment on whether or not the law is good public policy. A majority of Utahns believe that school board elections should not be partisan. Moving forward from this decision, we ask lawmakers to listen to their constituents and restore nonpartisan school board elections before the 2020 elections,” Kanter said.
The court ruled unanimously, with Justice John Pearce recusing himself and Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sitting in his place.
Justice Dino Himonas authored the opinion of the court while Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee authored a separate 15-page opinion concurring in part and concurring in the decision.