After years of litigation, the Utah Republican Party was dealt another blow on Tuesday after a federal appeals court affirmed that Utah’s candidate nominating election law, known as S.B. 54, is constitutional.
Lawmakers passed the compromise law in 2014. It allows candidates an alternative path to the ballot, by gathering signatures rather than attending party caucuses and nominating conventions. Candidates can get on the primary ballot by either gathering a set number of voter signatures, participating in their party’s caucus-convention system, or doing both.
The Utah GOP had sued the state, arguing the change in election law violated the party’s First Amendment rights to freedom of association. The party preferred to choose its candidates exclusively through its nominating conventions. Hardliners in particular complained that they were unable to vet candidates who gathered signatures under the party banner.
Two federal appellate judges in the 10th Circuit Court in Denver said the election law “strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the interests of the state … and allowing [political parties and voters] to express their preferences and values in a democratic fashion as protected by the First Amendment.”
“Not only does this balance not offend our Constitution, it is at its very essence,” they wrote.
Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich disagreed. He sided with the Utah Republican Party on that issue, writing in a dissent, “not only does the law interfere with the Utah Republican Party’s internal procedures, but it also changes the types of nominees the Party will produce and gives unwanted candidates a path to the Party’s nomination.”
“When a State forces a party to radically change its candidate selection procedures in the way Utah does here, it places a severe associational burden on that party,” Tymkovich wrote.
The ruling came down on the day political parties, including the Utah GOP and the Utah Democratic Party, are holding neighborhood caucus meetings to select party delegates.
State GOP Chairman Rob Anderson called for party unity after the ruling came down.
“It’s time for Utah Republicans to heal, and to work together. It’s time to choose a better way, and let’s begin today,” Anderson said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Lt. Governor Spencer Cox issued a similar statement, saying he would follow the law the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld.
"As chief elections officer, my duty is to execute the law," he said.
"As a Republican," Cox added, "I am hopeful that this decision will put to rest the lingering issues and unrest happening within our party, allowing us to move forward together."
The Utah GOP's lawsuit has cost the party hundreds of thousands of dollars and has led to infighting within the party.
Some members of the GOP's State Central Committee recently attempted to change its own rules to discourage candidates from gathering signatures. Last month they passed a rule that said Republican candidates in two federal races were barred from gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot altogether. The proposed bylaw was never submitted to the Lt. Governor's office for approval.
The Utah Democratic Party applauded the ruling and continued its criticism that the Utah GOP's rule change violated state election law. "With the Tenth Circuit opinion, we can't help but wonder if the URP will bother to enforce its own rules, or continue to demonstrate that it is a lawless, rule-less party," said Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
"Either way, democracy won big today," he added, "and this November, Democrats will too."