Gov. Gary Herbert has a new legal counsel, Ron Gordon, who has just missed stepping into one of the messiest legal issues the governor has seen in eight years in office.
His current counsel, Jacey Skinner, is leaving to become assistant court administrator for the Utah state court system.
Last spring, Skinner pushed Herbert to demand from Attorney General Sean Reyes that Reyes not give the Utah Legislature an opinion on whether Herbert violated state law in deciding on his own to set up the special election process when former-U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned his seat earlier this year.
Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the official state elections boss, decided to allow candidate signature gathering to get on a party’s primary ballot, while some GOP lawmakers wanted a special session called so they could decide the nomination process – presumably giving party delegates that power.
That election process ends when Tuesday’s election of Provo Mayor John Curtis, a Republican, to fill out the remaining year of Chaffetz’ term is officially certified. Curtis went the signature gathering route, but also the delegate/convention, where he finished out of the running. He won the primary handily.
At one point, UtahPolicy is told, Skinner even asked the Utah State Bar whether AG staff attorneys who worked on the lawmakers’ opinion could be sanctioned by the Bar for violations of attorney-client privilege should Reyes issue the opinion.
Reyes refused to give GOP and Democratic leaders the opinion – even though it had been drafted and signed by him. It remains a secret.
However, as UtahPolicy reports an agreement has been worked out between the warring parties.
The Open Records Committee recently voted that Reyes must give the opinion to The Salt Lake Tribune, and Herbert’s office asked Reyes to appeal that decision to state court.
All three sides – Herbert, Reyes and the GOP-controlled Legislature – then started talking about an accommodation.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, have said they want Reyes’ opinion to be delivered to lawmakers and made public.
And that may now happen.
GOP legislative leaders have told their caucuses that they are working on possible bill(s) for the 2018 Legislature that would make it clear the attorney general has to give the Legislature legal opinions if it asks for them – regardless of whether the governor may believe that is a violation of his attorney-client privilege or not.
Gordon would have walked right into this disagreement.
But none of that was not mentioned Wednesday when Herbert called a Capitol Hill press conference to announce Skinner’s leaving and Gordon’s appointment.
Gordon won’t have to move his office far – like up one floor.
He is the executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice – where he has worked in one capacity or another for 20 years.
Skinner worked for the CCJJ before she was picked by Herbert as his counsel nearly four years ago.
Herbert and other administration officials praised Skinner, both for her hard work, legal acumen and diligence, but also for her good humor and loud laugh. All of which have become an integral part of the office’s administration, said Herbert.
Skinner said at no time did Herbert personally play any politics with legal issues or anything else -- perhaps a clear statement on such issues like the current disagreement over Reyes’ legal obligations and the Legislature’s desire for the opinion.
“(Herbert) always asked what is legal, and what is right” for the people of Utah, said Skinner, who choked up with emotion several times during her public comments.
Herbert said Skinner has had previous job offers, but “was very loyal” to him to stick around as long as she has.
Skinner said she’s leaving to continue her work of upholding Herbert’s judicial legacy: She has helped the governor pick judges for years now, and as a top state court administrator will help the judiciary he’s picked run smoothly and fairly.
Herbert has announced he won’t run for re-election in 2020, and some of his top staffers have begun looking around for other jobs.
Gordon has worked closely with the Legislature and other agencies in developing and implementing criminal justice reform for years, said Herbert.
And Gordon will do a fine job, the governor added, of giving the governor’s office legal advice, help in selecting judicial appointees and reviewing all the bills passed each year by the Legislature before the governor signs them, vetoes them, or lets them become law without his signature.