SALT LAKE CITY — The prolonged, bitter battle over Utah's controversial candidate nomination law appears to be over, at least as far as the courts are concerned.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the Utah Republican Party's appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the 2014 law passed as SB54. The decision, as is typical, came without explanation.
Don Guymon, a member of the Utah GOP's Constitutional Defense Committee, said he is disappointed in the court's denial. He said he believes the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to uphold the law would "imperil" rights of assembly and speech for political parties, labor unions, private universities and religious organizations.
"There is far more at stake here that just the future of Utah's SB54," he said.
The law came about as a compromise between state lawmakers and the Count My Vote initiative to replace the state's traditional caucus and convention system for nominating candidates with a direct primary election. SB54 maintains the convention process while allowing candidates to gather a requisite number of voter signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.
Count My Vote leaders called the Supreme Court decision welcome news.
"The dual path to the primary election ballot has proven to be effective at increasing participation in Utah elections and it’s highly popular with Utah voters,” said Rich McKeown, Count My Vote executive co-chairman. “There has never been any question about its constitutionality, and we are pleased the courts have repeatedly confirmed that."
The ongoing fight sharply divided the state GOP and caused acrimony among party members for the past five years.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson, who tried to end the lawsuit in 2017, said it's time to mend fences now that the legal challenge has ended.
"Let us no longer pit ourselves against one another," he said in a statement. "Instead, let us strengthen our party from within."
In its lawsuit, the Utah Republican Party claimed the law is unconstitutional and threatens the free speech and assembly rights of not only political parties but other organizations. A federal judge upheld the law but the party appealed.
The party went to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court 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 protected by the First Amendment.
The Utah Attorney General's Office argued that there was no reason for the Supreme Court to take the case because lower courts are not split over whether states may prescribe party nominations by primary election.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, were among several politicians and organizations who asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and overturn the law. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert had urged the party to drop the lawsuit.
"The party had a good case and was right on the merits, so I was disappointed that the court did not take the case, but (it) was always a long shot," Lee said. "The Legislature should take this as an opportunity to fix the law, taking into account the First Amendment issues identified by the party."
Herbert said it's "time to heal the rift within the Utah Republican Party and move forward together to promote the conservative principles that have served Utah so well."
The Utah GOP ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the case. Dave Bateman, CEO of the Lehi-based high-tech company Entrata, stepped up to cover the court costs and keep the lawsuit alive.
Bateman's Keep My Voice group also derailed the Count My Vote ballot initiative last year that would have asked voters to strengthen the existing law.
Phill Wright, Keep My Voice executive director, said the group would continue the "long fight for liberty."
"Despite the current legal setback, Keep My Voice will continue to advocate for giving every individual and neighborhood a representative voice, removing money as the dominant factor in elections and holding elected officials accountable," he said.
Guymon called on the Legislature to repeal the law.
Legislators over the years have drafted bills to undo SB54, including this year. Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, decided not to introduce legislation this year while waiting to see if the Supreme Court would take the case.
McCay said Monday he has no plans to revive the repeal bill this legislative session, which ends next week.
The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah called the Supreme Court's decision a win for the state.42 comments on this story
"It is a validation of the democratic principles that allow every Utahn to be involved in choosing their government officials, rather than allowing extremist factions to dictate choices for us," said Chase Thomas, executive director.
Thomas said it's time for government officials and GOP leaders to move on and "cease any legal and legislative attempts to dilute, amend or repeal this popular law."
Utah Democratic Party executive director Alex Cragun said after having lost multiple times in the courts, it's time for the Utah GOP to start following the law. He said the Democrats were "proud" to defend SB54 in court briefings against the Republicans' "baseless attacks."