Laura Seitz, Deseret News
FILE - The Utah Republican Party is dropping its lawsuit against the state over the controversial law know as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the party's nominating process, state GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said Wednesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Republican Party is dropping its lawsuit against the state over the controversial law known as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the party's nominating process, state GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said Wednesday.

But a member of the party's governing State Central Committee, Phill Wright, said only the committee can make the decision to drop the case now pending before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, an action he said would be irresponsible.

The apparent impasse could result in an attempt to fire Anderson at a State Central Committee meeting scheduled for Saturday in Park City. At their last meeting, members of the group adjourned before discussing a resolution to end the lawsuit.

"I've already called the attorney, and we're setting up a meeting tomorrow," Anderson told the Deseret News after what he called a last-minute, emergency meeting of the party's budget committee and officers.

He cited a party rule allowing officers to make decisions to ensure the party doesn't remain in debt longer than three months, with the approval of the budget committee, and said there were only two dissenting votes Wednesday.

"This is a rule in the party that we’re using to right the ship. This malfeasance ends. I ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility," said Anderson, who was elected chairman in May after calling for an end to the legal battle over SB54.

The party has been in debt about three years, he said, and currently owes the attorney appealing a loss in federal court last year on the SB54 case some $334,000 and another $61,000 for operational costs that have not been paid.

Wright, who ran against Anderson for the party chairmanship, said he was one of many in the 180-member State Central Committee frustrated by Anderson's actions.

"He doesn’t have the authority to do it. He just doesn't. He’s reaching well beyond his authority," Wright said. "I just find it unbelievable he would do something like this without consulting the governing body of the party."

Wright said "all options are on the table" at Saturday's State Central Committee meeting. "I think that some of us will be looking for things we can do right away. We’re not going to sit around and wait. Wheels are in motion."

He questioned dropping the party's appeal at this point, since the case was already argued before the 10th Circuit Court in September.

"Why on earth would we end the lawsuit before getting the opinion? That is irresponsible," Wright said. He said he expected the legal costs to be reduced through negotiations.

The latest flare-up in the ongoing battle among Republicans over SB54 comes as backers of the Count My Vote initiative establishing a direct primary election get ready to circulate petitions to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

SB54 was a compromise between Count My Vote and the GOP-controlled Legislature to stop a similar initiative effort in 2014. But the Republican Party took the state to court over the law.

What SB54 does is allow two paths to the primary election ballot, the party's traditional caucus and convention process for nominating candidates and a signature-gathering option that allows candidates to bypass the party process.

14 comments on this story

At the last State Central Committee meeting in September, Anderson warned the group that the party had been outflanked by Count My Vote and faced losing the ability to nominate candidates with the passage of the initiative.

Anderson said Wednesday he believes if the GOP stops the legal fight over SB54, it will be harder for Count My Vote to convince voters it would be better to have a direct primary where candidates only get on the ballot by gathering signatures.

"People like choice," he said. "If we don't accept that, we’re going to be the 'Myspace' of today, not the Facebook."