Seventh District Judge Lyle R. Anderson ruled that SUWA violated “Rule 11” by filing the action, which argued that meetings between San Juan County Commissioners and federal officials were a violation of Open Meeting law.
In an April 3 ruling, Anderson dismissed the lawsuit, which argued that Commissioners violated state law in 2017 when they met officials in Washington, DC, including Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and members of the Utah Congressional delegation.
When Judge Anderson dismissed the lawsuit, he suggested it may have been filed “for the improper purpose of intimidating the [Commission] and other similarly situated officials.”
In his recent ruling, Anderson writes, “…this action was not filed with the proper purpose of enforcing the Act, but rather with the improper purpose of dissuading commissioners from lobbying federal officials.”
County officials are delighted with the ruling. The county has spent millions of dollars fighting a host of legal challenges in recent years.
San Juan County has paid nearly $2 million in legal fees to outside council in the past two years. The county may be forced to pay more than $3 million in additional legal fees as a result of voting rights lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation.
Unlike the other costly lawsuits, the legal defense for this case was handled “in-house” by San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws. There are no additional costs for outside counsel in this case.
Commission Chair Bruce Adams said, “SUWA has abused their platform and donors for too long. They have made money on the backs of the taxpayers by filing frivolous lawsuits and exploiting the Equal Access to Justice Act.
“We could not be more pleased that Judge Anderson has seen through the lies of this organization. It is our hope that this will be the first step in a movement to unmask SUWA and the manipulative way they do business.”
The ruling instructs the county to submit its attorney fees within seven days.
Judge Anderson said the SUWA lawsuit was nearly identical to a 1995 lawsuit that was similarly dismissed. SUWA suggested in the 1995 lawsuit that San Juan County Commissioners were about to violate the Open Meeting law by meeting with the Governor of Utah and the Utah Congressional delegation to discuss wilderness legislation.
The 1995 lawsuit sought a temporary restraining order against the meetings, a permanent injunction, and attorney fees. The case was heard, and dismissed, by Judge Anderson.
Anderson writes, “The arguments made here by SUWA are essentially the same as those that were rejected in the 1995 Case…
“In 2017, they filed this case in Salt Lake County, relying on dubious language in the Act about bringing the action in a ‘court of competent jurisdiction’. Venue was promptly changed to this court.”
Anderson states that these actions are “suggestive of a purpose to pester the County and shop for a favorable forum, in the pursuit of an agenda to discourage County communication with Secretary Zinke, Interior Staff, or members of Congress, about the Bears Ears National Monument.”