SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Republican Party and the state now appear headed to the Utah Supreme Court to argue about a controversial new law that changes how political parties choose nominees for elected office.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ordered both sides to meet and agree on the issues they want the state's top court to address in the prolonged dispute. A federal court may refer questions of Utah law to the state Supreme Court under appellate rules.
Chief among the questions is whether a political party or a candidate may decide which of two paths or both to pursue to get on the primary election ballot.
The Utah GOP maintains the decision rests with the party, and it has chosen the state's long-standing caucus and convention system. The state contends the candidate has the option to seek the nomination at the convention or by gathering a requisite number of signatures allowed under SB54 or both.
Nuffer's order comes just days after the Republican Party again sued the state over the new law and as it appeared to the state that the GOP was no longer interested in going to the Supreme Court.
"While my office had been working with the Republican Party to get final clarification on this issue from the Utah courts, we recently received notice that they had changed their mind and decided to file suit in federal court against the state to challenge this and other provisions of the election code," Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wrote in a public memo Tuesday. Cox oversees the state elections office.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said that isn't true and that the party filed the lawsuit after the Utah Attorney General's Office told it to go ahead and it would not object.
"We did not walk away and decide to do this on our own. That is complete fiction. We did what the AG's office requested," he said.
Utah Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas called Evans' statement inaccurate. He said he never gave the Utah GOP's attorney, Chris Troupis, the thumbs up to go to federal court and told him it would be a bad idea.
Douglas said Troupis agreed just a few days before the party filed the federal lawsuit that going to directly to the state Supreme Court would be the best way to get a resolution.
Evans said both sides want to resolve the dispute as soon as possible. Now that it's going to Utah's top court it could be settled in a matter of weeks, he said.
Nuffer last fall struck down a provision in the law that required political parties to open primary elections to all voters. The ruling left the rest of SB54 intact, including letting candidates gather signatures without going through a party convention to get on the primary ballot.
More than 70 candidates have filed declarations with the elections office to gather petitions to get on the ballot. Some have already turned them in.
Evans has said GOP candidates who choose only the petition route would no longer be members of the party under new rules adopted last summer.
Cox's memo attempts to clarify questions candidates and voters have about the law. Most candidates, he said, want to know which path to take to get on the primary ballot.
Cox recommended they pursue both because the litigation makes the outcome difficult to predict. Although judges are historically averse to removing candidates from the ballot, "it is impossible to know with 100 percent certainty" whether a judge would invalidate the petition process or eliminate the caucus and convention system.
A group called Count My Vote set out in 2013 to increase voter participation by changing how political parties choose candidates. Supporters dropped a statewide petition drive calling for a referendum on a direct primary election in exchange for getting an alternative path to the ballot.
As a compromise, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed SB54 to let parties keep the convention system for choosing nominees but also allow candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot.
The Utah GOP says it was not part of the deal and sued the state.