Utah lawmaker changes LGBT leader’s mind, clears committee on way to becoming judge

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

A Senate committee on Monday voted to recommend that a Heber City lawmaker be seated as a state judge despite concerns raised by Utah gay-rights activists who questioned whether Kraig Powell could treat their community fairly.

In January, Powell proposed bills to label same-sex unions as “pairage” — instead of marriage — and to require the state to favor heterosexual married couples over same-sex couples in adoption.

Both measures — which failed — were seen as an effort to legislate discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the wake of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage for the nation.

On Monday, Powell apologized to the LGBT community for his actions.

“I’m truly sorry for the offense that I caused,” Powell told the committee. “I want the committee to know I am not anti-gay. I pledge to treat all people with fairness and with objectivity while serving as a judge.”

The legislation, Powell said, was an attempt to balance the diverse and competing voices of his constituency in a “very heated political environment”; he said he never intended make gay couples or families feel inferior.

“I do not believe that LGBTQ people should not be parents or that they are somehow inferior,” said Powell, a Republican, who did not seek re-election this year. “I also do no harbor anti-gay bias or prejudice.”

Powell’s nomination advanced by an unanimous committee vote Monday after two hours of questions from his fellow lawmakers and the public, including LGBT activists.

Angie Rice, a transgender woman who is an Air Force veteran and a special-education teacher, told the committee that she brought photos of her wife and three children, to put a face on the anxiety many people in the LGBT community feel.

“If I stood in a courtroom, side by side with our beautiful family, would my dignity and the dignity of my family and the honor of my family stand on level ground with any couple in our community?” she asked the committee as a way of explaining her concern.

Chase Thomas, of Alliance for a Better Utah, also challenged Powell’s appointment, saying his “discriminatory” 2016 bill proposals showed disregard for the U.S. Constitution and judicial precedent set by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — discrimination that should disqualify him for judgeship.

“It’s one thing to test the limits [of the law],” Thomas said, “but completely different to design a law that is unconstitutional.”

The state’s only openly gay lawmaker, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, raised similar concerns, noting that a year ago, a 7th District judge tried to block a lesbian couple from adopting their infant foster daughter, despite the couple having a legal marriage and the backing of state child welfare officials.

Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah, came to Monday’s hearing, expecting to speak against Powell — his agency launched a campaign last week to block the nomination — but changed course.

Williams recalled the historic 2015 effort by lawmakers and gay rights advocates to jointly craft a statewide nondiscrimination bill that would become law, and he said that listening to the heartfelt personal stories of lawmakers who had grown to support rights for the LGBT community was one of the most moving experiences of his life.

“Some of our biggest allies have not always been with us,” he said. “So recognizing the evolution, the journey that Rep. Powell has been on, I accept your apology. … I believe you when you say that you will rule impartially, without bias and without prejudice.”

Gov. Gary Herbert nominated Powell in October to fill a 4th District Court vacancy. If confirmed, Powell would replace the retiring Judge Claudia Laycock in the Provo-based judicial district.

The full Senate is expected to vote on Powell’s appointment Wednesday during a special legislative session.

Read the Salt Lake Tribune article here

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