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1998 Utah Legislative Report

31 December 1997 Published in Legislative Reports

 English-Only Law Defeated 

During the 1998 legislative session, the most significant victory for the ACLU of Utah was the defeat of House Bill 189, English as the Official Language of the State of Utah. Sponsored by Representative Tammy Rowan and first introduced in the July 1997 interim session, the bill required that all official state documents, transactions, proceedings, meetings, and publications be in English only. While the bill listed several exceptions, the ACLU of Utah was immediately concerned that such a law would severely compromise the due process, Equal Protection, and First Amendment rights of those who are not yet proficient in English, and limit effective communication between government employees and the public.  

Over the summer, we brought together a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals to coordinate opposition to the bill. This coalition organized public demonstrations, including a large rally in the state capitol building, granted newspaper, radio, and television interviews, met with individual legislators, and spoke at House committee meetings. Through these efforts, the bill became an important issue for state policymakers, and, despite the last minute efforts of the national organization U.S. English, our public education efforts were successful. The bill was defeated in committee and never made it to the House floor for a vote. 

Undaunted by this defeat, Representative Rowan launched a petition-drive to ensure that her bill reach the House floor for a vote during the 1999 legislative session. By November, she had collected the necessary signatures, and the ACLU of Utah worked diligently with the coalition so that we would be in a position to effectively oppose the initiative in 1999. 

The State Child Abuse Database Continues to Pose Due Process Concerns 

Over the past twenty years, the Utah Department of Human Services (DHS) has maintained a database of over 200,000 complaints of child abuse and neglect. The management of this information exemplifies many of the typical problems with electronic databases: unsubstantiated complaints remain on the list, a large number of people have access to the database, and there is no process in place for individuals to contest the charges made against them. In addition, DHS is not required to notify people before placing them on the list, despite the fact that individuals listed in the database can be prohibited from working with children. 

During the 1998 legislative session, a bill was passed that was meant to address these concerns. The law mandated that DHS remove all unsubstantiated complaints, and send a letter to those substantiated of child abuse in the past ten years to inform them of their right to challenge the allegations at an administrative hearing. What followed was an absolute mess. In June, DHS mailed out their first batch of certified letters – almost 10,000 – to individuals accused of documented acts of child abuse between 1988 and 1994. Although these were supposed to be cases that were fully investigated by the Division of Protective Services, many people, upon receiving the letter, learned for the first time that they were substantiated of child abuse. Those who were unknowingly in the database included children who were five or six at the time of the incident, parents who had been in the midst of bitter custody battles who had been accused of abuse by their former spouses, and individuals who had been inputted into the database before someone else was later convicted and sent to prison for the abuse. A second batch of 15,000 letters was never sent out because DHS had no way to deal with the number of hearings requested, and legislators, who were receiving angry calls from their constituents, questioned the fairness of the procedure. 

Dismayed by the violations of basic due process rights for such a large number of people, the ACLU of Utah became deeply involved in this issue. Throughout the year, we attended legislative interim committee meetings to try to address these concerns through state law, and met with individuals who had received notices from DHS. Those who attended hearings described an almost Kafkaesque scene, in which the administrators running the hearings were unclear about the proceedings, and at times, denied individuals access to information that was used against them. The legislature will attempt to solve these problems during the 1999 session. If they are unsuccessful, the ACLU of Utah will consider litigation to ensure that individuals are guaranteed their fundamental due process rights. 

The Public’s Ability to Petition the Government Restricted 

Two bills passed by the legislature effectively limited the power the public has to change or implement state policies. One bill made it much more difficult to put an issue on the ballot through initiative petition by increasing the number of counties in which petition-passers need to collect signatures. A related bill that became the successful ballot measure, Proposition 5, placed a super majority standard on citizen initiatives that attempt to change hunting policies. By singling out one issue, Proposition 5 sets a disturbing precedent, and it is now incredibly difficult for citizens to impact state wildlife policy. 

Prison Budget Reduced 

Since Pete Haun took over the Utah Department of Corrections, the ACLU of Utah has been encouraged by both his accessibility and progressive prison policies. In the last legislative session, however, Haun’s efforts to move the department in a new direction were seriously undermined when the legislature refused to give him the funding he requested and pushed for the privatization of correctional facilities. Because these decisions will most likely have civil rights repercussions in the form of overcrowding, insufficient rehabilitative programs, and a lack of trained officers, we testified on the department’s behalf. Our organization remains an active advocate for a department budget that adequately funds additional inmate programs and appropriate training for correctional officers. 

Ballot Initiative Approved to Restrict Felon Voting Rights 

Before last November, Utah was one of only four states that allowed incarcerated people to vote. However, a 1998 House Joint Resolution that was approved by Utah voters in November, amended the state Constitution to deny voting rights to any person convicted of a felony. Companion legislation stated that the right to vote will be restored once "(a) the felon is sentenced to probation by the sentencing judge; (b) the felon is granted parole by the Board of Pardons; or (c) the felon has successfully completed the term of incarceration to which the felon was sentenced." Despite the fact that this initiative denies such a fundamental constitutional right as the right to vote, courts have unfortunately upheld similar laws in other states. 

The Number of Closed Caucus Meetings Increased 

Throughout the session, the Republican caucus, which represents two-thirds of the legislative body, met in private to discuss public policy in addition to party politics. In a disturbing trend, the Republicans closed more meetings during the 1998 session than in any other year in recent memory. While technically legal – party caucuses are exempted from the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act – the closed meetings clearly violated the spirit of the law. This new way of conducting business affects advocates on all sides of the issues, and makes it impossible for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to provide input in the laws by which they must abide. 

Lawmakers Attempted to Keep Genetic Information Private 

During the interim session, Representative Nora Stephens introduced the Genetic Testing Privacy Act. Because of the privacy and Equal Protection concerns involved, we were very pleased that a legislator was addressing this issue, and were supportive of the sections of the bill that prohibited discrimination by employers and health insurers based on genetic information. We therefore found ourselves in the unique position of supporting proposed legislation, and had the time to meet and work with the sponsor. We suggested changes that would provide more consumer protection, and throughout the year, met with the sponsor and other interested parties so that we would be ready for the 1999 session.

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