Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chris Buttars Stripped Of Utah State Senate Confirmation Committee Chairmanship For Strong-Arming 4th District Judge Derek Pullan

Sen. Chris Buttars has been stripped of his chairmanship of the Utah State Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee, which screens the governor's nominees for the bench, and replaced by Sen. Greg Bell. Full story published in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Senate President John Valentine announced the change on Monday February 25th, but would not say why the decision was made, beyond noting that it is the prerogative of the president to select committee leaders.

The abrupt and auspiciously-timed ouster comes amid controversy over a letter Buttars, who chaired the committee since 2002, wrote to Fourth District Judge Derek Pullan in support of a friend and political supporter locked in a legal battle with the city government of Mapleton. Buttars already has been under fire for the controversial "black-baby remark" made on the Senate floor February 12th, widely and sometimes-hysterically misintepreted as a racial remark.

A Paul Rolly column published in the Salt Lake Tribune on February 22nd further explains the issue in Mapleton. Wendell Gibby, a radiologist who has been a prominent supporter of Chris Buttars and a donor to his previous campaigns, wants to build 60 homes on 120 acres he owns in the foothills above Mapleton, and has been locked in a zoning dispute with the city. The area has been classified as an "Environmentally Restricted Zoning District".

But when push came to shove, Judge Pullan ruled against Gibby, opining that the city could force a right of way on Gibby's land under the theory of a "one-way emergency access road". This triggered a letter on State Senate letterhead from Buttars to Gibby, using derogatory and even threatening syntax in criticizing the judge.

Buttars wrote: "As chair of the Senate Confirmation Committee, I was subject to some criticism for having supported your confirmation. Your critics expressed concern for your lack of legal experience, they were also concerned that your political participation on some issues would prejudice future decisions."

Buttars also wrote: "I had hoped that we had appointed a judge that would err on the side of individual rights, not a liberal activist judge who would champion government." He added that he was "embarrassed" that he had supported Pullan.

The text of the entire letter can be found HERE.

Buttars has sponsored several bills that personally benefit Gibby, and he has allowed Gibby to use his Senate office to do his own lobbying, which prompted complaints from some legislators.

Reports of the letter, which the judge filed in the case as "ex parte communication," reportedly caused a stir in the legal community. Retired University of Utah law professor John Flynn called Buttars' contact with the judge far beyond the pale. "No elected representative should engage in that kind of conduct, particularly if they have a position of power in the Legislature dealing with the judiciary," Flynn said. "It's just not an appropriate thing to do."

Selection of Greg Bell, who represents District 22 from Fruit Heights, as the replacement chairman has drawn praise. For his part, Bell doesn't expect to change much about how the committee is run. Buttars will remain a member of the confirmation committee.

In a related story aired by KSL Channel 5, it looks like the State Senate is trying to find a different sponsor for SB267, which would outlaw domestic partner registries in Utah. This might be a smart political move. Any bill sponsored by Buttars will receive exceptional scrutiny for the time being until the furor over his remark dies down. Like it or not, he's politically wounded, and should not be sponsoring any controversial legislation or "must-pass" bills for the near future.

Commentary: Even though I've been extremely critical of the witch-hunt directed towards Buttars over his "insensitive" remark, this is a separate, and much more serious issue. This touches upon the integrity of a committee chairmanship. Consequently, I support the removal of Senator Buttars from his committee chairmanship. His letter, written on official letterhead, and using derogatory syntax, makes it appear Buttars is exercising improper influence by "strong-arming" the judge. The political relationship between Buttars and Gibby also appears to be becoming incestuous in nature. Buttars' action does not make him unworthy to be a state senator, but it does make him unworthy for the additional responsibilities of a committee chairmanship.

What I'd like to know is why did the State Senate wait ten months to take this action? Removing Buttars now makes it look like the State Senate is trying to cover its tracks over the "black baby" issue rather than exercise legitimate political discipline. The action is clearly warranted and very much overdue, but the auspicious timing makes it look opportunistic.

Add to this the fact that state lawmakers have been found to take gifts from lobbyists, some taking gifts of an aggregate value in excess of $5,000 in one year, and I see a legislature that needs to be put under a microscope.

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