10th Circuit Court shoots down another appeal of Utah’s signature-gathering law

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sage Mack, 19, (right) drops her ballot in the ballot box and casts her first vote ever with her sister CoCo Mack (left). Lines and wait times were long at the Democratic caucus at Clayton Middle School as both registered party members and unaffiliated voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Federal judges have dealt another defeat to a group of Republicans seeking to shoot down the Utah election law that allows candidates to gather signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday denied a request for a rehearing of the appeal by all of the court’s judges.

“States must have flexibility to enact reasonable, common-sense regulations designed to provide order and legitimacy to the electoral process,” the judges wrote in their decision.

They found that Utah’s law, Senate Bill 54, ”strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the interests of the state in managing elections and allowing” the GOP “to express their preferences and values in a democratic fashion and to form associations as protected by the First Amendment.”

Supporters of the ongoing lawsuit against SB54 said they always expected the case to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’re going to pursue this to the Supreme Court, that’s always been the plan,” said Brandon Beckham, of the group Keep My Voice. “We still believe it’s extremely important to pursue and will take it to the highest court.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s chief elections officer, welcomed the 10th Circuit Court ruling.

“Today’s decision provides a sorely needed resolution to a lengthy and divisive issue,” Cox said in a statement, referring to several years of Republican Party infighting over the signature-gathering law.

“Gov. [Gary] Herbert and I look forward to meeting with Republican leadership in the near future to discuss how to best unite our party.”

Dave Bateman, a Utah County business executive who has been funding the lawsuit on behalf of the Republican Party, called Cox’s statement “very much wishful thinking.”

“I’m disappointed that the 10th Circuit, just at the apathy toward First Amendment rights. But we feel emboldened for the opportunity to bring it to the Supreme Court.”

Bateman and others determined to fight to the bitter end see the issue as one of the state interfering in the rights of a private organization — in this case a political party — to determine its affairs and choose its representatives.

“If we do win it now, it will set precedent not just in the 10th Circuit but all across the United States,” Bateman said. “It’s a huge opportunity to make an impact on a national level to assert the rights that parties have to nominate candidates that they think best.”

Agreeing is Don Guymon, one of five members of the Utah GOP’s Constitutional Defense Committee who will decide whether the lawsuit should continue.

Guymon said he couldn’t speak for the panel, but “as long as it is not going to incur any additional debt to the party, I would be in favor” of appealing to the Supreme Court.

“It has far-reaching implications. Should a church be told how it chooses its leaders? Should a private organization be told how it chooses its leaders by government?”

“We feel First Amendment rights are worth fighting for,” Guymon said.

Supporters of SB54 feel just as strongly that the signature-gathering law is worth defending because it allows voters to have a direct say in which candidates appear on the primary ballot — often the election that determines the officeholder in Republican-heavy Utah.

“There are some 600,000 Republicans in the state of Utah. Do those 600,000 Republicans have the right to vote for any declared Republican candidate?” asks state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of SB54. “Or can a relatively small group exclude a significant number of Republicans from the ballot in the name of [the right of] association? ... That’s really what’s this debate is about.”

The public agrees. A January poll by The Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found Utahns by a 2-to-1 margin oppose the idea of returning to old system in which party convention delegates have exclusive power to pick primary or general election candidates.

SB54, enacted in 2014, allows candidates to take either the convention or signature-gathering path to the ballot, or both. Supporters of the law argue that this method not only gives voters more say in who represents them but produces more mainstream candidates. Convention delegates — whether Republican or Democrat — tend to represent the extremes of their respective parties.

This argument was showcased in last year’s election of U.S. Rep. John Curtis, who was soundly defeated in the GOP Convention but gathered signatures to make it to a primary, which he handily won.

A year earlier, Gov. Gary Herbert was bested in the Republican Convention by conservative business executive Jonathan Johnson. Herbert went on to crush his challenger in the primary and easily won re-election.