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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Supreme Court justices poked at the Utah Republican Party's interpretation of a controversial new state election law in a hearing Monday as hundreds of candidates work to get on the primary ballot.
Though lawyers for the GOP, Utah Democratic Party or the state didn't want to read the tea leaves afterward, questions from Justices Deno Himonas and Christine Durham might signal where the court is headed.
Republican Party attorney Marcus Mumford argued that the state can't tell political parties how to select their nominees for public office.
"This statute doesn't do that," Durham said.
Under the law, organizations that register with the state as a "qualified political party" — which the Utah Republican Party did — must allow candidates to gather petition signatures, go through the party's convention or both to secure a place on the primary election ballot.
But the Utah GOP maintains the decision rests with the party — not the candidate — and it has chosen Utah's long-standing caucus and convention system. The state contends the candidate has the option to seek the nomination at the convention or by collecting a requisite number of signatures or following both paths.
A federal judge asked the Utah Supreme Court to resolve that question of state law as part of the Republican Party's ongoing lawsuit against the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees state elections.
The justices didn't spend much time on that issue with attorneys for the Utah Democratic Party and the state.
Mostly they probed whether a qualified political party that fails to allow signature gathering would lose that status and be designated as a "registered political party." Only signature collecting to get on the primary ballot is allowed in registered political parties.
Many of the justices' questions focused on whether the Utah GOP would kick out members who gather signatures to get on the ballot, which the party has threatened to do. Candidates must certify with the party that they would follow its rules, which don't a include a provision for signature gathering.
Twenty-six Republican candidates for federal and state offices have already gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, according to the elections office. Dozens more declared an intent to do so.
Assistant attorney general David Wolf told the court that if a party revokes membership based on signature gathering, it would no longer be permitting members choose their path to ballot.
The justices noted that the GOP has said it intends to remove members, but until the party attempts to do so, the court might not have an issue to rule on.
Courts don't typically hand down advisory opinions, but Wolf said it would be beneficial in this case.
Having an answer to what it means to substantially comply with the law and what happens if the Republican Party doesn't comply would be helpful for the lieutenant governor's office moving forward, he said.
Durham asked Mumford if the Republican Party would comply with the law if the court ruled against it. He said it "intends to obey" but would also "regroup to consider our options."
Asked afterward if the Republican Party would expel members, state Chairman James Evans said, "My answer at this point is we will wait for the final answer from the federal court on April 15."
Evans further said he couldn't answer questions about hypotheticals, "so stop the speculation is what I'm saying."
U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer is deciding whether the signature gathering requirements are constitutional. He found earlier this year that thresholds for Utah Senate and House districts might be too high.
Attorneys for the state say it doesn't matter how high they are because signature gathering provides an alternate route to the ballot.
The Utah Democratic Party intervened in the case to ensure the lieutenant governor's office applies the law uniformly and fairly, said attorney Charles Stormont.
Justices Tom Lee and John Pearce recused themselves from the case. Lee's brother is Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is running for re-election. Pearce worked as Gov. Gary Herbert's in-house counsel. Two appellate court judges replaced them.