PCMR v. Talisker judge nominated to Utah Supreme Court
Ryan Harris, the judge who presided over the closely watched lawsuit that ultimately led to the sale of Park City Mountain Resort, was nominated for a seat on the Utah Supreme Court this week.
Harris is a 3rd District Court judge who was assigned to the Silver Summit courtroom during the lawsuit that involved the former owners of PCMR, the firm that owns the land underlying most of the resort’s terrain and Colorado-based Vail Resorts.
A state body known as the Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission on Wednesday made public the names of seven nominees. Jill Parrish resigned from the state’s highest court in August after she was confirmed as a federal district judge, creating an opening on the Supreme Court. It is the second time Harris has been nominated. The first was in 2014.
The Nominating Commission will accept comments and forward the names to Gov. Herbert. He will have 30 days to make an appointment after the Oct. 12 close of the public-comment period. The state Senate then must confirm the governor’s selection.
Harris, who is no longer assigned to the court in Silver Summit, made a series of critical rulings in the PCMR case that eventually reshaped the local and state ski industries. The lawsuit centered on a lease held by the former owners of PCMR. The former owners inadvertently did not renew the lease, propelling the sides into a highly contentious legal case. The former owners of PCMR filed the case in the spring of 2012.
The Harris rulings over the course of the case largely went against the former owners. He ruled on issues such as whether the lease was renewed and whether the former PCMR owners were denied a right of first refusal on the acreage when the landowner, a firm called Talisker Land Holdings, LLC, reached a long-term agreement with Vail Resorts to operate the Talisker corporate family-owned Canyons Resort. That agreement included a point that would expand the deal to include the PCMR terrain depending on the outcome of the lawsuit. It was a technical case that relied on corporate flowcharts, the fine details of the lease and facts culled from depositions with high-level figures on both sides.
Harris, momentously, signed a de facto eviction notice against the former owners of PCMR and ordered the sides into mediation in an effort to resolve the case. The mediation resulted in Vail Resorts’ 2014 acquisition of PCMR, ending the litigation. The firm this summer is molding the terrain at PCMR and Canyons Resort into a single property, creating the largest mountain resort in the United States.
On Election Day in 2014, barely two months after the end of the case, voters in the district overwhelmingly retained Harris. The district encompasses Summit, Salt Lake and Tooele counties. He was appointed to the bench in the summer of 2011. The 2014 retention election was his first. The state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recommended he be retained in that election. The panel’s vote was 11-0.
Harris impressed many attorneys who practice in the Park City area during his time presiding at the Silver Summit court. They praised his intellect and his courtroom manner. Although the PCMR lawsuit was, by a wide margin, the most notable case assigned to Harris, attorneys said his performance on other cases was also impressive.
"I am thrilled to hear that," David Brickey, a former Summit County attorney, said about the nomination.
Brickey served as the County Courthouse’s top attorney for 10 years ending in early 2015. He now is an attorney in a Park City firm. He regularly appeared in front of Harris as the county attorney.
Brickey described Harris as a direct judge who would explain his concerns with cases brought by the Summit County Attorney’s Office. He suggested from the bench what issues the attorneys would need to address, Brickey said. He was firm, fair and "always prepared," he said.
"You want a judge, a justice of the Supreme Court, who is clear, articulate and succinct," Brickey said, adding, "This is a wonderful day for the state of Utah."
Another attorney who practices in Park City also supports the nomination of Harris. Matt Hutchinson appeared in front of Harris at least 30 times as an attorney in civil cases, prevailing in some and losing in others. He said he understood the reasoning of Harris in the cases he lost. Harris arrived at hearings well prepared, he said. Hutchinson wrote a letter in support of the Supreme Court nomination.
Hutchinson said Harris understood the importance of the rulings in the PCMR lawsuit and the impact they had on the community. That understanding, though, was not a factor as Harris weighed the facts of the case against the law, he said.
"He is cautious, thorough and has a very good temperament for deciding cases, deciding disputes," Hutchinson said, adding, "I always felt like he was prepared for what he said in court. He came into the courtroom having read everything."
The other nominees are: Michele Christiansen, a Utah Court of Appeals judge; Diana Hagen, who is an attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office; David Jordan, who is a partner in the law firm of Stoel Rives; David Mortensen, a 4th District Court judge; John Pearce, a Utah Court of Appeals judge, and Amy Sorenson, a partner in the Snell & Wilmer law firm.
Two people indicated in interviews they are considering mounting campaigns for the Park City Council, a signal the City Hall election could attract an intriguing slate of candidates in a year when the majority of the five seats are on the ballot.