PCMR v. Talisker: the judge faces voters on Election Day | ParkRecord.com

PCMR v. Talisker: the judge faces voters on Election Day

Judge Ryan Harris signed a de facto eviction order against Park City Mountain Resort last summer, one of the bombshell moments in the closely watched lawsuit between PCMR and its landlord, Talisker Land Holdings, LLC.

If voters are unhappy with the judge, they could sign a de facto eviction order against Harris on Election Day.

Harris, a 3rd District Court judge, is on the ballot in what is known as a judicial retention election. Voters will decide if some of the Utah Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges and district court judges are retained. Harris is among them.

Judicial retention elections are rarely widely publicized as they share the same ballot as political campaigns — County Courthouse, Statehouse and congressional contests — that generate far more interest during a typical election season. Harris, though, was a pivotal figure in an extraordinary lawsuit that ended early in the fall with Vail Resorts’ acquisition of PCMR. A series of rulings by Harris against PCMR essentially led resort parent Powdr Corp. to negotiate the sale to Vail Resorts.

By presiding over the case, Harris became a rare recognizable name on the bench. The state media corps covered the case. People in the Park City area monitored the situation with much greater interest than other lawsuits. A judge’s body of work involves numerous cases, both criminal and civil, but people locally will almost certainly equate his name with the PCMR lawsuit against Talisker Land Holdings, LLC.

Harris was appointed to the bench in the summer of 2011. Election Day will be the first time Harris has appeared on a ballot for a retention election. There is not an opponent seeking the judicial post Harris holds. Utah law calls for a judge to face a retention election on the first Election Day more than three years after appointment. District court judges like Harris face retention elections every six years after the first one.

The 3rd District encompasses Summit, Salt Lake and Tooele counties, and Harris is on the ballot in those three counties. If Harris is retained, his term would start in January. If he is not retained, he would leave the bench at the end of the year.

Harris presided over the PCMR-Talisker Land Holdings, LLC case from the start. The lawsuit, filed by PCMR and eventually involving a countersuit, centered on the resort’s lease of Talisker Land Holdings, LLC acreage underlying most of the PCMR terrain. There was statewide interest in the case as well as it being watched closely by the national ski industry.

Some of the notable rulings Harris made included that the PCMR side did not renew the lease and that Talisker Land Holdings, LLC did not violate PCMR’s right of first refusal when it entered into an agreement with Vail Resorts that included the possibility of the Colorado firm operating the disputed terrain, depending on the outcome of the case. Harris in July signed a de facto eviction order against PCMR. In early September, Harris attached a $17.5 million figure to a bond that PCMR would have been required to post to remain on the land through an appeal of the case. The bond figure was set shortly before the sides settled. Harris also ordered the sides into mediation in an effort to settle the case. The mediation resulted in the sale of PCMR.

The state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, a politically balanced panel appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court, the state Senate and the state House of Representatives, recommended Harris be retained. The vote was 11-0.

In a survey conducted for the retention election, he scored higher than the average of other district court judges in categories like legal ability, integrity and judicial temperament and administrative skills, his retention report indicates. His legal ability score, as an example, was rated at 4.5 out of 5 compared to the 4.1 scored by the district court peer group. A score of 5 is defined as outstanding. Harris scored above the peer group, on a 1-to-5 scale, in each of 22 questions. Topics included his written rulings offering "meaningful legal analysis," his ability to separate his personal beliefs from his role on the bench and treating people in the courtroom with respect.

The numbers were based on 135 responses from attorneys who appeared before Harris, court staffers who have worked with him and jurors who have deliberated in trials he presided over.

The evaluation commission report, meanwhile, showed people who were surveyed overwhelmingly used positive adjectives to describe Harris. There were 384 positive adjectives — 97 percent — and 11 negative ones selected from a list. The word "intelligent" was mentioned 78 times, the word "attentive" was mentioned 57 times and the word "knowledgeable" was mentioned 49 times. People used the word "arrogant" three times and "dismissive" three times as they described Harris. Nobody said he was indecisive or rude.

Of the people in the survey group who answered the question, 97 percent recommended Harris be retained. Three percent said they would not recommend he be retained.

Four observers who sat in courtrooms Harris presided over as part of compiling the evaluation commission report provided comments about the judge. Some of the comments in the retention report include:

  • "He considered each side equally in his decisions, was truly engaged and interested in all speakers, and cared about and wanted to do the best for each individual’s situation in an unhurried and careful manner."
  • "While the judge gracefully entered conversations by saying, ‘Let me interrupt you, if you don’t mind,’ on occasion he just interrupted and talked over an attorney. On the other hand, one observer was a little shocked by an attorney’s statement, ‘You are completely off the rails now,’ but it seemed to indicate that the attorney was confident he could speak frankly and openly. Judge Harris did not take offense but took it in stride, treating the attorney with continued interest, respect, patience and understanding."
  • "One observer reported that the judge occasionally seemed ready to cut off comment, such as when saying, ‘Well, we could just cut to the chase,’ and the observer wondered if this was deflating or a damper on what the attorney might have wanted to say, but in this case a vigorous debate then ensued between both attorneys, with the judge entering as well."
  • " . . . Observer A reported that Judge Harris was not always clear and transparent about how his decisions were made or about the rules of law."

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