Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Lt. Governor Spencer Cox speaks in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 28, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court has asked the state to respond to the Utah Republican Party's petition to hear its case against Utah's controversial candidate nomination law.

The state GOP appealed its ongoing challenge of the 2014 law approved as SB54 to the high court in October. In November, the Utah Attorney General's Office waived its right to respond on behalf of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the defendant in the lawsuit. Cox oversees state elections.

Utah has until Jan. 3 to file a response, the day before the justices are scheduled to consider hearing SB54, according to the court's docket. However, the Utah GOP has 14 days to reply to the state's brief, which could push the court's consideration of the case to February.

That the court wants the state to respond might or might not signal it has interest in the issue.

The justices meet in private throughout the year to discuss cases and vote on petitions for review. The court receives more than 7,000 petitions each year and chooses to hear about 100 to 150.

"We are grateful the Supreme Court is taking the case seriously and requesting the state of Utah to respond. It was disappointing that the state decided not to respond to this serious question of constitutional law on its own," said Don Guymon, a member of the Utah Republican Party constitutional defense committee.

The Utah GOP went to the Supreme Court after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law "strikes an appropriate balance" between protecting the interests of the state in managing elections and allowing the party and individuals to express their preferences in a democratic fashion and to form associations as protected by the First Amendment.

"Not only does this balance not offend our Constitution, it is at its very essence," according to the three-judge panel.

Those looking to repeal the law say it violates free speech rights.

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The Utah GOP sued the state over SB54, which allows candidates to bypass Utah's traditional caucus and convention system by gathering signatures to get on the primary election ballot. A federal judge upheld the law but the party appealed.

The law came about as a compromise between lawmakers and backers of the Count My Vote ballot initiative to abolish the convention nomination process in favor of a direct primary election. The prolonged battle over SB54 has caused a deep divide among Utah Republicans.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and 19 current and former state lawmakers have filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the effort to overturn the law.