SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court is wading into a legal battle between the Utah Republican Party and the state, and what it rules could possibly decide if GOP candidates appear on election ballots.
The court on Monday heard a challenge to Senate Bill 54, which was crafted as a compromise to the "Count My Vote" ballot initiative that would have done away with the caucus/convention system in Utah. Under current law, candidates can go through the caucus/convention system, gather signatures or both.
In arguments before the court, the Utah Republican Party argued that it should be deciding the path, not party members.
"It seems to me that your interpretation is replacing the member choosing with the Republican Party choosing," Justice Deno Himonas told Utah GOP attorney Marcus Mumford.
Justice Christine Durham said the law states the member picks whether to signature gather, go through a caucus/convention system or both.
Meanwhile, the Utah Democratic Party has jumped in, arguing that if the Utah GOP doesn't comply with the law as written it could be disqualified as a "qualified political party."
"We think the people have spoken through the legislature about what the process should be and we're concerned when people say, 'I don't have to comply with the process,'" Utah Democratic Party attorney Charles Stormont told FOX 13 outside of court.
Right now, 233 candidates are gathering signatures to get on the ballot, said assistant Utah Attorney General David Wolf told the court. They include Governor Gary Herbert, Senator Mike Lee and top legislative Republicans. Representing the Utah Lt. Governor's Office, which oversees elections, Wolf argued against it.
"What we would have, if you adopt the Democratic Party's approach, you would have by my count 233 candidates who can't seek the nomination through the convention, not have a route to the ballot," he said.
The justices seemed reluctant to disqualify the Utah GOP. So far, Republicans have only threatened to kick out people who gather signatures and the court questioned if the issue was ripe. The Lt. Governor's office agreed.
"Is it enough for the Republican Party to simply threaten? Or do their actions count louder than their words?" Wolf told the court. "The Lt. Governor believes their actions must count louder than their words."
Stormont told FOX 13 the Utah Democratic Party was looking out for signature-gatherers who are allowed to pick this path to the ballot under the law.
"It's funny, right? The Democratic party has jumped in to protect the political process and protect some of the signature gatherers of the Republican party," he said.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans questioned the Utah Democratic Party's motives.
"Well, I guess they can't win elections so they have to go to court to try to win this way," he told FOX 13.
With signature-gathering and campaigning under way and the Utah GOP's state convention later this month, the Utah Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling within weeks. Evans said clarity about the law may come later this month when a federal judge is expected to weigh in again on the Republican Party's lawsuits over SB54.
"We're going to go back to federal court and get the final question, which is what we want all along which is constitutional clarity," he said.