The lengthy legal fight over Utah election law is over as U.S. Supreme Court refuses to accept GOP appeal

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) In this Nov. 30, 2018, file photo, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gather for a formal group portrait at the Supreme Court Building in Washington. Seated from left: Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr. Standing behind from left: Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Elena Kagan and Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ended five years of legal battles by the Utah Republican Party to quash a 2014 election law that allows candidates to qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures and/or through the caucus-convention system.

Justices refused to hear the party’s challenge of that law, called SB54, rejecting the party’s arguments that it unconstitutionally interferes with its right to choose how to select its own nominees.

The Utah Republican Party Constitutional Defense Committee, a party arm that was given power to control the lawsuit, said the fight to erase SB54 is not over but will switch from the courts to the Legislature.

“We call upon our legislators to do the right thing and repeal this controversial law,” its written statement said.

It added that the decision imperils “the rights of assembly and speech of all private expressive associations,” including “political parties, labor unions, private colleges and universities, religious organizations and many others. There is far more at stake here than just the future of Utah’s SB54.”

But Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said no such repeal is likely this year.

“SB54 has been a contentious item within ... the Republican Party,” Vickers, said. “But there’s not an appetite in the majority party in the Senate to do any kind of repeal.”

The court’s decision was hailed by Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote. That group of moderate Republicans initially sought a ballot initiative that would have replaced entirely the caucus-convention system with open primary elections but settled on SB54 as a compromise.

“The legal challenge is over and now establishes the dual path as the law of Utah,” McKeown said. “The law has proven to be popular, and it has accomplished its purpose of increased voter participation.” A recent Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed Utahns oppose erasing SB54 by a 2-to-1 margin.

Meanwhile, Keep My Voice, a conservative group that has fought SB54 and helped block a ballot initiative by Count My Vote last year that would have cemented it more firmly into law, said it will continue to fight legislatively.

“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,” said Phill Wright, executive director of the group.

The group headed by Wright, a former vice chairman of the Utah GOP, is bankrolled to the tune of at least $175,000 by Dave Bateman, the CEO of a Utah software company called Entrata.

Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Utah Alliance for a Better Utah, urged a complete end to battles over SB54. “As this prolonged and unnecessary controversy is put to rest, we strongly urge government officials and party leaders to move on and cease any legal and legislative attempts to dilute, amend, or repeal this popular law.”

The Utah Democratic Party praised the court action and said it was proud to be among those who fought to retain SB54. It said the Utah GOP “should comply with the law that the U.S. District Court, the Utah Supreme Court, the 10th Circuit, and now U.S. Supreme Court all agree is constitutional.”

The Utah Republican Party prefers the state’s old election system that relied only on the caucus-convention process to determine party nominees. If candidates won enough votes at a convention, they could skip a primary. The party said it allowed candidates with less money a decent chance of winning.

Critics said the old system gave too much power to delegates, who tend to be much more conservative than most voters. They say SB54 gave all party members more of a voice and helped elect more mainstream candidates.

For example, archconservative Chris Herrod defeated more moderate John Curtis at convention in a special 2017 race for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat — and under the old system would have been the party pick. But Curtis had gathered signatures to appear in the primary, which he easily won before going on to win the general election. He was easily re-elected last year.

Other signs of delegates not being in tune with overall GOP voters were that both Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Gary Herbert finished second at GOP conventions — but went on to win landslides in their primary and general elections.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal keeps in place an earlier decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld SB54.

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

They added that SB54 ”strikes an appropriate balance between protecting the interests of the state in managing elections and allowing” Republicans “to express their preferences and values in a democratic fashion and to form associations as protected by the First Amendment.”

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Utah GOP argued that the high court previously ruled that political parties have a First Amendment right “to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce the nominee who best represents its political platform.”

Numerous right-wing groups supported the party position in friend-of-the-court briefs, including 19 current and former members of the Utah Legislature, some who had voted for SB54; U.S. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas; GOP Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Raul Labrador of Idaho; and a group of minor parties.

On the other side, Utah Solicitor General Tyler Green had urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, arguing it was the only way it could remain consistent with a half-century of its own rulings.

“For nearly 50 years, this court has repeatedly recognized the states’ power to prescribe political party nominations by primary elections,” he wrote. “Not once has this court — or any other court — cast constitutional doubt on that practice,” which Green said led every state to now use primary elections, not conventions.

SB54 has split the Utah GOP. Business groups and moderates applaud the law, and many of them quit donating to the party when they feared their money would go to the lawsuit.

Right-wing leaders, who dominate the party’s central committee, like the convention system that helped give them power, and they have pushed the legal challenges.

When party Chairman Rob Anderson tried to stop the lawsuits by saying the costs were bankrupting the GOP, the central committee stripped him of such powers and created the Constitutional Defense Committee to make decisions on the appeal.

The party had once amassed a $410,000 debt in pursuing the case. But last year, Bateman, the Entrata CEO, stepped in and “acquired the debt” from party lawyers — who settled for about 40 cents on the dollar — with some strings attached.

Bateman’s agreement to cover costs of continuing legal battles against SB54 had a catch. The party would have to repay him if it ever dropped the lawsuit without his permission or before all appeals were exhausted — including the final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Count My Vote attempted another ballot initiative last year to help cement SB54 into law. It appeared to have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but an effort funded by Bateman thwarted that by persuading enough people to withdraw their signatures.

Reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story.