Fire at Will: Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah – In this informative and reoccurring series I will be conversing and partaking in insightful discussions with various elected officials and important people in the state of Utah. Through these conversations, I intend to explore the core of their roles, shedding light on the significant responsibilities and duties that come with public office.

Throughout this series, we will also delve into their viewpoints on critical issues affecting their constituents and the efforts they have made to address these concerns and promote advancement within their communities.

This weeks edition consists of a conversation with the Summit County Attorney, Margaret Olson.

Olson was born in Utah, and was actually born on July 24, Utah’s Pioneer Day. Olson received her undergraduate and law degree from the University of Utah, and has been practicing law since her graduation from law school.

Unlike most graduates coming out of law school, Olson chose not to specialize in a specific type of law, and her first legal job was working for an attorney who practiced both civil and criminal law.

“I’m a little unique. The first job I had was working for an attorney who did both civil and criminal, which is very unique,” Olson explained. “Most people specialize in a specific form of law, and, as a matter of fact, when I took this office, I called him and said, because of you I’ve always practiced both civil and criminal law and litigation. And it made me uniquely qualified to take this job [as the Summit County Attorney].”

In the mid 1990s, Olson worked as a prosector for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office. Olson left the Salt Lake County Attorney’s office in 1997, when she and a partner founded Hobbes and Olson, a private practice based in Salt Lake City.

“I had my own law firm, Hobbs and Olson, and that was a general litigation practice where I had civil cases as well as criminal cases. In addition to criminal defense, I also did quite a bit of work on behalf of crime victims, guiding them through the system or representing them in cases,” Olson said.

Olson worked at Hobbs and Olson for over 17 years before taking the position of Summit County Attorney, a position that she had always been interested in.

“I have always been interested in politics, and a common way for an attorney to enter politics is to become the DA in the jurisdiction where they live,” Olson said. “This was 2017 right after the 2016 elections, so I put my hat in the ring and was appointed by the Summit County Council. My predecessor in office, Robert Hilder, who was just a very well respected, highly revered member of the bar, passed away in office, and so the county council needed to appoint someone who lived here.”

At that point, Olson had already been a resident of Summit County for 25 years, and she put herself up as a candidate. The County Council appointed her in 2017, and she then ran and won the office in 2018. Olson won another election in 2022, and is now in the midst of her second term in office.

It took the County Council all but two and a half weeks to appoint Olson to the County Attorney position from the time she applied.

Despite the County Attorney being an elected position, Olson does not consider herself a politician, and she does not concern herself with campaigning and earning votes.

“I realized very early on, that I could not perform this job while worrying about campaigning. It is incumbent upon me to do the right thing in every instance, if the consequence of that is that I’m defeated, that’s how it is,” she said. “I really think one of the problems with people holding public office is they’re too worried about getting reelected. You need to be in your position, do the best job you possibly can, exercise your conscience to the best of your ability, and let the chips fall.”

“It’s the prosecutors job to do justice, and a lot of members of the public who have an opinion about how a case turned out or decisions that were made, aren’t aware of all of the underlying facts and considerations. It would be a great disservice to that process to be worrying about what people think you don’t know all of them, especially those that aren’t sitting in the courtroom.”

As part of her duties as County Attorney, Olson is extremely involved with all legal issues in the county, and splits her time with the County Council, planning commissions, criminal cases, and the County’s Children’s Justice Center.

“In our office, we have the civil division, which is responsible for protecting the county, and representing the county by advising county officials. I have embedded myself very closely with the county council, and I attend all the meetings personally and engage with their strategic goals. I spend about a third of my time with the county council and assisting them with their duties. Other members of our civil division advise the two planning commissions and their elected departments, officials, departments, etc.”

Olson calls members of the County Council her coworkers, and she and her team are there to provide legal advice and ensure compliance with things such as the Utah Open Public Meetings Act.

What attorneys are most known for is the criminal division, where Olson is active in and spends a large chunk of her time.

“Then we have the criminal division, where I spend a lot of my time, which is responsible for the prosecution of all crimes that occur within the jurisdictional boundaries of Summit County, except for class B and C misdemeanors that occur inside the city limits of Park City Municipal.”

In addition to both civil and criminal divisions which Olson oversees, she also operates the Summit County Children’s Justice Center.

“I also oversee the operation of the Summit County children’s Justice Center, which is a trauma center where children and their caregivers go when there’s a report of child maltreatment, abuse, or neglect. We may have team members working there on any given day, there may be a child abuse medical professional, there may be a child protective services caseworker, detectives, or trauma therapists. We have a whole team that works there but I’m responsible for overseeing that,” Olson explained.

While Olson has a hand in every legal issue in the county, she still manages to actually practice law in the courtroom.

“I have endeavored to keep my skill set sharp. For example, I personally argued case on behalf of the County at the Utah Supreme Court in May, I cover the Justice Court, and I participate in our drug court on a weekly basis,” Olson said. “I think it’s important as a county attorney in a community of this size, that I’d be doing the work. I write legal arguments, I argue cases as much as I can. If a prosecutor is going on vacation, I’m one of the people that they would ask to cover and I like it that way.”

Olson has also been personally involved in some of the biggest cases, including the Kouri Richins case, and the Dakota Pacific litigation.

“I’ve spent the better part of my summer taking personal responsibility for discovery in the State vs. Kouri Richins,” Olson said.

Throughout the summer, Olson has amassed and organized an undisclosed amount of evidence and documents that may be used in the trial.

In addition to working on the Kouri Richins case, Olson has been personally overseeing Summit County’s litigation with Dakota Pacific. Summit County and Dakota Pacific have been in a disagreement over a proposed development which did not abide by Summit County’s regulations. The State Legislature then enacted S.B. 84 Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone Amendments, which would have overrode Summit County’s authority. A State judge then ruled S.B. 84 does not apply to the land in Summit County.

“We prevailed in getting a ruling that Senate Bill 84 does not apply to that land because Dakota Pacific didn’t have a land use application. We then filed another motion, saying, Judge, please rule that the initial development agreement controls this land because it’s recorded, runs with the land, and Dakota Pacific Real Estate took written assignment of it. It’s a very simple motion that would end the case, and Dakota Pacific asked for extension of time to respond to that. So they’re not obligated to respond to that motion until early next month.”

One of Olson’s guiding principles is to try and ensure equal justice, no matter the circumstances and background surrounding a case.

“Our job of a prosecutor is to seek justice, and it’s very important to me and to our office, that people receive equal justice under the law, so that the connected, the wealthy, entitled, don’t receive different or better justice than the underrepresented, the disempowered, or someone who lacks resources,” Olson said. “I’ve been pressured not to bring cases against people because they’ve contributed a lot to the community, or they’re wealthy. Justice wears a blindfold for this reason, and we try to do our best to make sure that everyone is treated the same regardless of where they come from.”

Olson also chooses not to pick and choose crimes to prosecute.

“As far as I’m concerned, I took an oath to support and uphold and defend the law. I can’t decide not to enforce the law,” Olson said. “But there is always prosecutorial discretion on whether or not there is enough evidence to support the charge, or if it is admissible evidence, or if there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

In terms of what’s next for Olson, she’s is not exactly sure yet, but she is committed to continuing to serve Summit County.

“I love working, but what’s next? I don’t know. I am highly invested in this county in this community. I’ve lived here for 30 years, I have raised my children here, the people in this community are my friends and neighbors. I’m not quite ready to be done yet.”

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