Utah Republicans to drop lawsuit over SB54 law on picking candidates; right wing says it may oust state GOP chairman


(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party chairman Rob Anderson speaks to the membership about his stance on the ongoing lawsuit against SB54 as the Utah Republican Party Central Committee meeting, Saturday, September 9, 2017.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said Wednesday he is ending the party’s expensive, divisive lawsuit challenging the state’s new election law, SB54.

That brought howls from the party’s right wing — which says it may now try to oust Anderson. It hoped the suit would force a return to the old caucus-convention system, in which a few delegates may choose a party’s nominee.

SB54 allows candidates to qualify for a primary election by collecting signatures, by going through the caucus-convention system or both. The right wing says that dilutes delegate power. Moderates say the old system gave too much power to right-wing extremists and led to nominees outside the mainstream of politics.

Anderson said the party’s top four officers met with the party’s budget committee Wednesday and voted to end the suit, which has created $323,000 in unpaid legal bills — with more on the horizon. The suit also led many moderates to stop donating to the party, worrying it could go to the legal action they dislike.

Anderson said the vote was allowed by party bylaws that permit them to “take any and all actions necessary to make sure that the party does not have a deficit situation longer than six months.”

He said the lawsuit created a deficit that has lasted three years, starting when it was first filed long before he was elected chairman earlier this year. He said he has been able to cut the party’s operating deficit to about $60,000 but needs to end the lawsuit to truly put the party firmly back into the black as its bylaws require.

While the party lost lower-court decisions on the lawsuit, the party appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver — which recently heard oral arguments but has yet to issue a ruling.

“In my opinion, there is no resolution without increasing expenses,” Anderson said, explaining why he is dropping the suit without waiting for a ruling. If the party loses, he said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would cost an estimated $500,000 — and he doubts the case would be accepted.

Even if the party wins, Anderson said, the case would be remanded back to state courts, “and that will increase attorney fees. And the resolution will take years.”

“We don’t have years. A retained deficit should not be for more than six months, according to our governing documents.”

The right wing of the party previously threatened to remove Anderson if he ended the lawsuit, and Anderson conceded that “there will be fallout” — probably as early as Saturday, when the party’s 180-member central committee meets in Park City. “This should increase attendance,” he joked.

Don Guymon, a member of that committee who helped lead efforts to continue the lawsuit, said that only the central committee may end it — and the committee’s latest vote on the matter ordered that it continue.

Also, he contended that the budget committee that voted with Anderson on Wednesday “was not appointed correctly according to our constitution and bylaws, which calls for a majority of its members to be members of the state central committee” and to be approved by it, which he says current members are not.

“The state central committee is the governing body of the party, and we will make decisions regarding the lawsuit,” Guymon said. “We will hold the chairman accountable if he ends this lawsuit.”

In regards to the right wing’s threat to remove Anderson if he took such action, “that is a possibility,” Guymon said. “I will say I am very disappointed in the chair.” Anderson likely would never have been elected, Guymon said, except for earlier pledges to support the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the Count My Vote initiative is proceeding to possibly let voters decide next year what to do with SB54. It seeks to use a direct primary to select party nominees and to eliminate using the caucus-convention system as a path to the ballot.

Count My Vote proposed that move in 2014 but withdrew its petition to appear on the ballot when SB54 was developed as a compromise. However, the Utah Republican Party said it had not agreed to it and has challenged it in court and with legislation. So backers have resurrected the initiative seeking to let voters decide the issue.