The legal fight over SB54 - the Utah law allowing candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot - is over. On Monday, the Supreme Court officially refused to hear the Utah Republican party’s appeal of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year, meaning the law stands.
That also means the arch-conservative wing of the Utah GOP who was pushing the high court to hear the issue has lost once again.
Opponents of SB54 were hoping the court would seize on the minority opinion from the 10th Circuit that suggested the high court should consider the issue of whether a state can determine how a private entity, such as the Utah GOP, determines their own membership or, in this case, candidates. Dozens of groups, including members of Utah’s congressional delegation, filed briefs with the court supporting the Utah GOP’s appeal.
Those pleas were for naught as the high court refused to hear the appeal without explanation on Monday.
So, at least for now – unless the right-wingers can find some other ancillary issue to sue on – SB54 continues as the candidate nomination law, as poll after poll has shown most Utahns wish.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson accepted Monday's decision and called for the party to come together following four years of internal turmoil resulting from the legal challenges to the law.
"The legal challenge is over. We are grateful to those who contributed immense time, effort and expense to allow the chance for our voice to be heard at the highest court in the land. We accept and understand that this decision is final," said Anderson in an email to party members.
Taylor Morgan spokesperson for Count My Vote, the group behind the original SB54 compromise, hailed the decision.
"The dual path to the ballot has been effective and highly popular with Utah voters. Now there is absolutely no question about its constitutionality," he said in a text message to UtahPolicy.com. "Count My Vote remains committed to preserving and enhancing the dual path so that all Utah voters will continue to have a voice in choosing candidates."
Without a court ruling in their favor – and the hardliners have lost once before the Utah
"The dual path to the ballot has been effective and highly popular with Utah voters. Now there is absolutely no question about its constitutionality.
Count My Vote remains committed to preserving and enhancing the dual path so that all Utah voters will continue to have a voice in choosing candidates."
Supreme Court, twice in federal district court of Utah, and now at two appeals courts – there is little doubt that the hardliners on the Utah Republican Party’s Central Committee will redouble their efforts at making internal party rules that seek to harm signature-gathering GOP candidates and favor convention-only candidates.
That was done in some legislative and county races in 2018.
The results weren’t good for the hardlines – for in each case the SB54 signature candidates (who in some cases ALSO appeared before party delegates in convention) won their races handily.
Below in a short history of SB54. It’s a tortured history which started in the 2014 Legislature and, because of the constant opposition by a wing in the Central Committee, has basically bankrupted the majority party organization in Utah:
= The 2014 Count My Vote citizen initiative petition effort was well on its way to making the ballot that year when CMV and GOP legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert reached a compromise – SB54.
Passage of SB54 that year ended the CMV petition drive but resulted in a serious of lawsuits by the Utah Republican Party, whose bosses were not part of the compromise.
Basically, the law says a candidate for state and federal public office in Utah can get on his party’s primary ballot by, 1) gathering a set number of voter signatures in his district (or statewide), 2) by getting a set number of convention delegate votes (usually above 40 percent), or take both routes at the same time.
Here is a link to an explanation of SB54 put out by the Utah Elections Office.
Over the next several years – in loss after loss in various courts – the party ran up half a million dollars in legal fees, paying very little toward them.
In short, the party became bankrupt – was bouncing checks around town – as some of the traditional big donors backed away from giving. Many of these folks liked SB54 and didn’t want their donations going toward a lawsuit they opposed.
In the spring of 2017, the 4,000 or so state GOP delegates declined to elect a chairman who strongly supported the lawsuits, instead picking Rob Anderson, who said he wanted to end the lawsuits, settle debts, and get the state party back on track in electing Republicans to office, via SB54 or otherwise.
But the so-called “Gang of 51,” around 50 of the 180-member Central Committee, started calling “emergency” meetings of the Central Committee, offering rule changes and resolutions aimed at battling Anderson and punishing signature-gathering candidates, among other things.
The Gang of 51 also made it clear they were going to continue the court fight – at that time headed to the 10th Circuit.
They found a financial ally in millionaire software developer Dave Bateman of Entrata, who agreed to “take on” the party’s SB54 attorneys debt in return to giving him and a select few 51 members authority over the lawsuit.
In recent years, the 51 and others inside the party have tried to adopt rule changes aimed at harming signature-gathering candidates, stopping just short of setting up a process of kicking out of party membership any candidate who takes the signature route.
It may well now be the case – having lost at the U.S. Supreme Court – this hardcore group will go forward with officially endorsing convention-only candidates, with their legislative supporters attempting to pass a new law that would help convention-only candidates by ballot “endorsement” banners or other measures.
However, SB54 has always been popular with voters. In March a year ago, the revised Count My Vote initiative for 2018 had 63 percent support among all Utahns.
The 2018 CMV version got more than enough signatures to make last November’s ballot. But a counter group – funded by Bateman – Keep My Voice – was successful in keeping Count My Vote off of the ballot by getting several hundred CMV signees in rural state Senate districts to take their names off of that petition – a move that was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court.
So, citizens have never gotten to vote on either Count My Vote 2014 petition, nor the 2018 version of SB54.
Over the last five years of court and personal infighting, many rank-and-file Utahns have gotten sick of what’s happening within their Utah Republican Party = as polling shows a majority support SB54.
A recent UtahPolicy.com poll finds that among Republicans, 64 percent said the SB54 battles make them LESS likely to support the party now than they once did.