10th Circuit Court rules SB54 is constitutional

Written by Bryan Schott, Managing Editor

UtahPolicy.com

Created: 20 March 2018

Just in time for the biennial Utah caucus meetings, a three-judge panel has upheld a lower court's decision in the Utah GOP's lawsuit against SB54.

That means that the group of hardliners who have pushed back against Utah's dual-track nomination method has lost once again in court, and the 2014 compromise law passed by the legislature stands. 

The decision was 2-1 in favor of upholding the lower court ruling.

In a blistering majority decision, the court majority said the SB54 compromise did not infringe upon the First Amendment right of association, as argued by the Utah GOP. 

"States must have flexibility to enact reasonable, common-sense regulations designed to provide order and legitimacy to the electoral process," the decision reads. "Not only does this balance not offend our Constitution, it is at its very essence."

The Utah GOP had argued that SB54 usurped the party's long-held process of nominating candidates via the caucus and convention system, and the new signature-gathering path injured the party. But in their decision, the court was not buying it and said the caucus system was "overly restrictive and potentially unrepresentative."

"First and foremost, this case is not...about who the candidates are, but rather who the deciders are," the majority opinion wrote. "SB54 was not designed to change the substantive candidates who emerged from the parties, but rather only to ensure that all the party members have some voice in deciding who their party's representative will be in the general election."

The dissenting opinion said the state's interference in the Utah GOP's nominating process (SB54) was unconstitutional because the state did not spell out a compelling interest for making such a change.

"Senate Bill 54 attempts to change the substance of the Utah Republican Party under the guise of the state's authority to regulate electoral procedure. Perhaps it would be wise for the Utah Republican Party to change its nominating procedures. But such change is not for legislatures to impose."

SB54 was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2014 as a compromise with the original Count My Vote ballot initiative, which sought to do away with the caucus path completely in favor of direct primaries. The compromise with the Republican-dominated legislature established the dual path to the primary ballot by allowing the signature gathering route.

The party argued that the signature gathering requirements were too high in some legislative seats. But the court ruled the dual-path nullified that argument.

Against the backdrop of Tuesday's decision, Count My Vote is pushing forward with their ballot initiative to codify the current hybrid nomination system further in state law while dropping the number signatures required to get on the ballot. Taylor Morgan of CMV says they're pleased with the ruling.

"We're pleased that the court ruled as expected," he said. "Utahns strongly support dual path nomination process. All Utahns should have a voice in choosing their party candidates."

The Utah Republican Party sought to drop the suit prior to today's decision, citing mounting legal debt that put the party in financial danger. Entrata founder Dave Bateman offered to pay off the legal debt and finance legal action against SB54 moving forward. 

The Utah GOP can now do one of three things moving forward. Because there was a dissenting opinion, they can ask another three-judge panel at the 10th Circuit to re-hear the case. They can also appeal directly to the Supreme Court, or they can accept the decision and end the suit.