SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is pushing back hard against the law known as SB54 that allows candidates to bypass the traditional political party nomination system, labeling it "unconstitutional" in a recent Facebook post.
Lee, who became Utah's senior senator with last week's swearing in of fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, called out fellow Republicans Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox for their backing of the controversial law.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing an appeal by a faction of the Utah GOP that sued Cox and other state officials over the law, which has been upheld in both U.S. District Court in Utah and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The 2014 law gives candidates the option of gathering voter signatures to qualify for a place on the primary ballot, either instead of, or in addition to, competing for party delegate support through the traditional caucus and convention system.
Opponents claim it is unconstitutional for the state to dictate how political parties choose their nominees and are hoping the Supreme Court takes up the case. The option has been used by a number of successful candidates, including Lee in 2016.
Romney, a supporter of SB54 who gathered voter signatures, also competed at the GOP convention last year. Delegates advanced both Romney and then-state Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, into a primary that Romney easily won.
Lee sparked a flood of responses to a post Thursday on his personal Facebook page about SB54.
"Governor Herbert, you’re a good man and a hardworking public servant. For the love of the Constitution — and for the good of all political parties — please stop defending SB54. It’s unconstitutional," Lee wrote.
On Friday, he posted, "Spencer J. Cox, do you support SB54?" Cox, who oversees elections in the state as lieutenant governor, is expected to run for governor in 2020 when what Herbert has said will be his final term ends.
Neither Herbert nor Cox had any comment Saturday.
Both posts received support from opponents of the law passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature as a compromise with supporters of the Count My Vote ballot initiative, including former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt.
That initiative, which would have replaced Utah's unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates with a direct primary, was withdrawn. A new initiative reinforcing the current law failed to qualify for last November's ballot.
Lee also urged state legislators to repeal SB54, something that has been tried unsuccessfully in past sessions. Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the House sponsor of SB54, said he'll introduce a bill repealing it in the upcoming legislative session.
McCay said he's filing the bill "because the compromise isn't working. SB54 was run to avoid an initiative and it's clear (Count My Vote) wants to continue running initiatives."
The compromise, McCay said, "was meant to keep the caucus convention process as the nomination process with a safety valve for signature gatherers. It seems (Count My Vote) won't be happy until the caucus convention process is gone."
Lee wrote on Facebook that "SB54 is a bad law. Let’s get rid of it! The state should not — and under the First Amendment cannot — have the power to control the candidate-selection process of a political party."
He continued in the same reply, "Mr. Herbert, tear down this wall! This is an unconstitutional law, you shouldn’t have signed it, and you certainly shouldn’t be defending it."
The senator, along with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and other current and former lawmakers, are already part of the effort to get the Supreme Court to overturn SB54, having filed friend of the court briefs in the pending petition.
The Supreme Court has asked the state to weigh in on the petition before making a decision about whether to take the case. The court typically receives more than 7,000 petitions annually but only chooses to hear about 100 to 150.
Lee's opposition to SB54, however, didn't stop him from gathering voter signatures for his 2016 re-election bid. Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said that is a legal way to get on the primary ballot.
"People often follow existing law while it is being challenged in court. That is completely normal," Carroll said, even if they believe the law is wrong. He cited Lee buying health insurance despite his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.31 comments on this story
"He did not believe he had to gather signatures. He did think it was prudent to do so given that it was a legal option at the time," Carroll said. "Again, he is not against collecting signatures. He is against the state telling the party how to pick their nominee."
But Carroll said he doesn't know if Lee would support the party allowing the signature-gathering option for candidates, although the senator "certainly has nothing against those who have used the signature option while it is legal."