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06/14/2020

More Utah Originalism from Justice Thomas Lee
Michael Ramsey

From the Utah Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Mitchell v. Roberts (June 11. 2020), per Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee: 

We would thus uphold the legislature’s decision if the question went merely to the reasonableness of its policy judgment. But that is not the question presented for our review. We are asked instead to interpret and apply the terms of the Utah Constitution (in particular, the Due Process Clause). We take a solemn oath to uphold that document—as ratified by the people who established it as the charter for our government, and as they understood it at the time of its framing. That understanding is controlling.

The original meaning of the constitution binds us as a matter of the rule of law. Its restraint on our power cannot depend on whether we agree with its current application on policy grounds. Such a commitment to originalism would be no commitment at all. It would be a smokescreen for the outcomes that we prefer.

Our laws are written down for a reason. And a key reason is to establish clear, fixed limits that the public may rely on—unless and until the law is repealed or amended by established procedures for doing so. The people of Utah retain the power to amend the Utah Constitution to alter the legislature’s authority in this area if they see fit. But the document as it stands (and as originally understood) forecloses the legislature’s power to enact legislation that retroactively vitiates a ripened statute of limitations defense.

And from later in the opinion:

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the principle of due process was viewed at least in part through the lens of the separation of powers and the concept of vested rights. Due process thus flavored the original understanding of the “legislative power” throughout the country and specifically in Utah. And the original understanding of the ratifying public dictates our answer to the questions presented in this case.

In the era of the framing of the Utah Constitution, the public understood the principle of “due process,” at least in part, as a matter relegating certain functions to the courts and not the legislature. Nathan S. Chapman & Michael W. McConnell, Due Process As Separation of Powers, 121 YALE L.J. 1672, 1781–82 (2012). The legislature was viewed as prohibited from exercising judicial functions—in interpreting and applying the law to the disposition of a case in which a party’s rights or property were in dispute. “This meant the legislature could not retrospectively divest a person of vested rights that had been lawfully acquired under the rules in place at the time.” Id. at 1782. The legislature “could enact general laws for the future, including the rules for acquisition and use of property, but [it] could not assume the ‘judicial’ power of deciding individual cases.” Id. Retroactive divestment statutes were viewed as judicial in nature (in the nature of “deciding individual cases”) because these laws were backward looking and operated to deprive individuals of rights and property “acquired under the rules in place at the time” of acquisition. Id. at 1782; id. at 1738 (“[C]ourts invalidated legislative acts to protect vested rights because the acts were quasi-judicial ‘sentences’ rather than genuine ‘laws.’”). Thus, valid legislative acts, in contrast to retroactive divestment statutes, stated the law going forward rather than “determin[ing] specific applications of law or . . . punish[ing] past acts”—functions relegated to the judiciary.14 Id. at 1719. Because divestment statutes operated to confiscate or vitiate previously vested rights, the nineteenth-century public viewed these laws as “judicial decrees in disguise.” Nathan N. Frost et al., Courts over Constitutions Revisited: Unwritten Constitutionalism in the States, 2004 UTAH L. REV. 333, 382 (2004) (citation omitted). And the public viewed such legislative encroachment into the domain of the judiciary as unconstitutional both as a matter of the principle of separation of powers itself and under the due process clause, which was understood as policing the division of powers between coordinate branches of government.

(Via How Appealing.)