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Federal judge to decide fate of GOP-disputed state election law

(Matt Gade/Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge will decide Friday whether to put legislative changes to how political parties select nominees for office on hold pending the outcome of the Utah Republican Party's lawsuit against the state.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer set parameters Thursday for arguments on the GOP's request for a preliminary injunction. He has the ability to delay all or part of the law created by SB54, which the Legislature passed in 2014.

Several prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, had started a citizen initiative two years ago called Count My Vote to change how political parties in Utah chooses candidates. But last year, initiative supporters dropped the statewide petition drive calling for a referendum on a direct primary election in exchange for getting an alternative path to the ballot.

The compromise bill, SB54, lets parties keep the state's unique caucus and convention system for choosing nominees, but candidates also could collect signatures to get on the primary election ballot.

The Utah Republican Party says it was not part of the compromise and asked a federal court last December to strike down the law, arguing it violates its constitutional right to define who belongs to the party, determine its platform and message and select candidates to run for public office.

"I don't see a lot of dispute about the facts. I see dispute about the meaning of the facts," the judge told attorneys for the party and the state.

Nuffer noted that Republican Party attorney Marcus Mumford has submitted generalized arguments about the bill but that he wants specifics about how it violates the state Constitution and case law that supports the claims.

Five witnesses, including state elections director Mark Thomas, could take the stand Friday. Nuffer denied the party's motion to call Republican Gov. Gary Herbert as a witness for the injunction hearing and SB54 sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, won't testify either. But both could still appear in court as the case moves forward.

Mumford said the compromise was between the state and Count My Vote "of our rights." He wants to explore Friday lawmakers' motivation and intent for passing the law, which he said specifically targets the state GOP.

But assistant Utah attorney general David Wolfe told the judge that is irrelevant. What matters, he said, is what the bill says not the Legislature's reasons for approving it.

Nuffer told the attorneys he's more interested in arguments about the effects of the law.

Is there a closed caucus somewhere where all the Republicans agreed that we're going to attack their own party? I doubt it," the judge said.

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