SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court ruled against the Utah Republican Party on Friday, mandating that candidates — not the party — can choose how to access the primary election ballot.
The ruling comes during an ongoing battle over Utah's new election law, SB54, which gives candidates the option to collect signed petitions, go through the state's longstanding caucus and convention system, or both to secure a spot in the primary election.
The GOP argued that the statute allows the decision to rest with the party, which should be able to preclude a member from gathering signatures. It's an attempt — with the party's conventions taking place this month — to recognize only those candidates who go through the party's conventions.
But the state has contended that SB54 allows the candidate to choose his or her own pathway to the ballot.
The court rejected the Republican Party's assertion, saying "there is no ambiguity" in SB54's language, and that the GOP's argument "simply ignores the structure" of the statute's language, according to the ruling.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon called Friday's ruling the "knockout punch" to the GOP's gripe with SB54, saying there's nothing "substantive left" for Republicans to argue.
"We hope this decision will encourage the Utah Republican Party leadership to finally stop circumventing the will of the state Legislature, the courts and the people of Utah, and allow the elections process to move forward according to state law," Corroon said in a prepared statement.
But Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said Friday's ruling was "not unexpected," and it doesn't throw a wrench into the main issue the GOP was hoping to resolve — a question of who can control membership, the state or the party.
The GOP argues the law mandates candidates be a member of the party, and to be a member of the party, one must abide by the party's bylaws, which require candidates to seek nomination through the convention process.
"What the state Supreme Court's ruling now brings into focus is the question that will resolve this case once and for all, which is who controls membership. We say it's the political party," Evans said.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer scheduled a hearing on April 15 for arguments regarding the extent of how the party can control its membership.
If Nuffer rules in the GOP's favor next week, Evans has said the GOP would disqualify candidates who don't win support from at least 40 percent of convention delegates.
"I don't know how that will go," Corroon said of next week's hearing. "But I would think it would be hard for a court to allow the Republican Party to throw people out of their party because they seek a way to get elected that has been approved by the Legislature and affirmed by the courts."
Evans, however, said he's confident the judge will rule in the GOP's favor.
"There is no question who controls access to the ballot — that is the state of Utah," Evans said. "But we control our membership. … We're on very solid ground on that."
The court also decided Friday not to consider an argument from the Utah Democratic Party to call on the state to revoke the GOP's status as a qualified political party because the Republicans were not complying with the law since party officials threatened to disqualify candidates who only gathered signatures.
However, the court did rule that unless the party takes action against a candidate who gathered signatures, "perhaps by ejecting a member from the party," the threats would not warrant any court action.
Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled against the GOP's argument that SB54's signature gathering provisions were unconstitutional.
SB54 was first passed in 2014 to overhaul state election law. The Utah Legislature passed the law as a compromise with Count My Vote, a group that hoped to boost voter turnout by getting rid of party conventions and instead nominate candidates through primary elections — arguing candidates would then be more representative of voters.
But the SB54 compromise instead created a parallel nominating process to the primary ballot by allowing both conventions and signature gathering. The Republican Party still opposed the compromise, launching the string of lawsuits leading to Friday's decision.
"Today's Utah Supreme Court ruling clearly confirms that the people of Utah, not political parties, determine who has a voice in our elections," Rich McKeown, co-chairman of the Count My Vote initiative, said in a prepared statement. "Count My Vote celebrates the ruling and remains committed to increasing participation in Utah's elections."