Supreme Court decision clarifies state’s authority

By Maya Shimizu Harris, Casper Star-Tribune, Via Wyoming News Exchange

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Court holds political party bylaws don’t supersede law


CASPER — The Wyoming Supreme Court’s decision last week concerning a Uinta County GOP election held two years ago may seem obscure and inconsequential. But though the situation that gave rise to the lawsuit is local, the ruling sends a bigger message about the limits of political party power under state law. 


It clarifies that, under state statute, only people who are elected precinct committee people for a county party can take part in that county party’s elections. 

The decision also means that rules created by county parties don’t supersede state law. 


In the mind of Mountain View Republican Rep. Jon Conrad, one of the plaintiffs in the case, the decision reinforces the perspective that the Wyoming GOP is “a party of law,” and that, though it’s a private organization, there are certain rules set by the state that the party has to abide by. 


“The ability to manipulate law or rules to perpetuate leadership positions is not right,” Conrad said. 


The case concerns a dispute in the Uinta County GOP over who could vote in its 2021 leadership elections. 


The group of plaintiffs were elected in 2020 to be Republican precinct committee people in Uinta County. Precinct committee people make up each county party’s central committee, which gets to vote on matters ranging from county leadership to resolutions. 


The defendants — Lyle Williams, Elisabeth Jackson, Karl Allred and Jana Williams — were central committee members and leaders of the Uinta County GOP in 2020. But none were elected that year as precinct committee people.


In March of the following year, the central committee met to elect its county leadership. 


The defendants participated in the election — which Lyle Williams presided over as the outgoing chairman — even though they were no longer precinct committee people. 


Jackson was elected chairman, Allred state committeeman and Jana Williams state committeewoman of the Uinta County GOP. 


The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in district court against the Uinta County GOP and the other defendants about a month later, arguing that defendants’ votes “controlled the outcome” of the elections and “essentially nullified” the voice of voters who elected the precinct committee members. 


They also said that defendants’ participation in the vote violated state statute, which says that the “county central committee shall elect” its leadership each odd numbered year. In August, plaintiffs appealed the lawsuit to the Wyoming Supreme Court after an unfavorable July ruling in district court. 


The defendants, on the other hand, said that the language of the statute and the county party’s bylaws do allow the voting procedure used at the 2021 elections; Allred, who is the former Uinta County GOP state committeeman, drafted a bylaw change in June 2020 to allow leadership to participate in the elections. That bylaw change was adopted by the state GOP at its 2022 state convention. 


Defendants also argued that the issue was an internal political party matter that couldn’t be subject to trial in court, and that barring the county party from adopting and using the bylaw in question would violate its constitutional right to freedom of political association. 


The state Supreme Court said, however, that the issues in the case could be subject to trial in court because “they present classic questions for judicial resolution, including the interpretation and application of a statute.” 


What’s more, the court said that the statute in question is “clear and unambiguous” in strictly allowing only precinct committee people to vote in elections, and that the county party wasn’t allowed under the statute to adopt the bylaw that expanded eligible voters. 


Political parties are private organizations, but they’re also involved in some government process, like public elections and the filling of vacancies in certain elected offices. So, while the state has no authority over when and where a political party holds its meetings, for instance, it does have some authority when it comes to a party’s involvement in government processes. 


The question that the lawsuit brought up is where that line is drawn between strictly internal party matters that the state doesn’t have control over, and party matters that are regulated under law. 



One of the most significant government processes that’s tied with county party leadership elections is the filling of vacancies in elected offices. 


Who occupies the chairman, state committeeman and state committee woman positions at the county level impacts that process since, for some statewide and federal vacancies, those are the people who choose candidates to forward to the governor, who then appoints one of those candidates to the vacant position. 


Wyoming’s Sen. John Barrasso first occupied his role in 2007 through this appointment process. Gov. Mark Gordon was appointed in 2012 to fill a vacancy in the state treasurer’s post. 

Just last year, Allred himself became secretary of state for about three months through this process after the former secretary resigned before the end of his term. 


The state Supreme Court acknowledged in its decision that courts generally refrain from deciding internal party disputes since political parties are private organizations. 


But it also noted that courts can consider political party matters when there are constitutional or statutory rights concerned, which was the case in this situation. 


Allred described the decision as “probably one of the worst rulings to come out of the court” and said that “statute can’t dictate” what’s done within a private organization, outside of exceptions like when the organization is involved in public elections. 


“I was very disappointed,” he said. 


The other defendants didn’t respond to the Star-Tribune’s emailed requests for comment by deadline. 


The defendants could theoretically try to contest the statute itself on constitutional grounds. 


The district court’s earlier ruling in favor of the defendants argued that prohibiting the county party from adopting the bylaw in question would violate its constitutional right to freedom of political association. 


The state Supreme Court didn’t consider whether or not the statute in question is constitutional because the Wyoming attorney general, who’s responsible for defending state statutes, wasn’t notified or allowed to take part in the lawsuit. 


The state Supreme Court simply interpreted the meaning of the statute. 


Allred said he’s not sure what next steps, if any, there will be, but the option of more litigation isn’t entirely off the table. 


He expressed concern, though, about the financial burden of pursuing another lawsuit. (He said there’s still roughly $43,000 in outstanding legal fees to pay.) 


It’s uncertain how the state GOP will respond or what steps it will have to take to comply with the court’s ruling. 


Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne didn’t respond to questions from the Star-Tribune asking whether or not the state GOP might consider taking up a legal challenge and how the party will adjust its bylaws to align with state statute. 


Though defendants in the case were elected to Uinta County GOP leadership positions in 2021, they were uniformly ousted in March following an election season that saw unusually high numbers of contested races for precinct committee seats. 


Ron Micheli, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, took over as the county party’s state committeeman.


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