By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Judge Joseph Bluemel dismissed a lawsuit against the Uinta County Republican Party and its leadership last Thursday, deciding the county party’s rules allow its leadership to decide who can vote for future county party leaders.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jon Conrad, a committee member who ran for the county chairman’s position.
“The recent decision by the Court has fully vindicated the Party and has proven the claims of Conrad and his co-complainants were without merit,” Uinta County GOP Chairman Elisabeth “Biffy” Jackson said in a post on the party’s Facebook page Monday night.
In March 2021, previously-elected officers Jackson, Karl Allred, Lyle and Jana Lee Williams were allowed to vote in the county party’s leadership election, despite each losing their respective precinct committee elections in August 2020.
The 2021 leadership elections resulted in Jackson, the Williams’ daughter, becoming county chairman, Allred state committeeman, and Jana Williams elected to state committeewoman.
The lawsuit asked the court to declare the 2021 elections null and void, to order new elections to select officers and to rule that Jana Williams, Jackson and Allred take no action in the positions “they now improperly purport to hold.”
The plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued that the Uinta County Republican Party is governed exclusively by the state election code.
“Allowing the Uinta County Republican Party to disregard state statute by granting voting privileges to whomever they so desire, need, or wish to vote, in an obvious, blatant and brazen effort to maintain power among a dynastic group of exclusive individuals, is a violation of the (state) election code, which precludes those who are not qualified to vote in order to properly preserve election integrity and to prevent election fraud and corruption,” said initial filing written by the plaintiffs.
State Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, Rep. Danny Eyre, R-Lyman, former Rep. Ron Micheli and county central committee members Clarence Vranish, Clara Jean Vranish and Troy Nolan joined Conrad in the lawsuit.
Under state law, precinct committeemen and women are elected in public primary elections but party leadership is elected through internal party elections. The precinct committeeman and committeewoman, along with the county party chair represent the county at meetings of the state party central committee and committee meetings during the state convention.
Although state and county Republican party bylaws specify elected county party officers can vote in elections along with precinct committeemen and women, state law says that voting can only be done by the county central committee, which consists, but the defendants argued is not limited to, the elected precinct committee members.
The Uinta county party’s bylaws specifically allow elected officers who are not county committee members to vote at State Central Committee meetings. The state party also allows this.
In his decision, Bluemel said state law was purposely written in an unambiguous manner to avoid overregulating political associations.
“The Uinta County Republican Party and its members decide “the stringency, and wisdom, of membership requirements … so long as those requirements are otherwise constitutionally permissible,”” Bluemel said, quoting a decision from a 1998 D.C. Circuit of Appeals case.
The defendants said the court cannot interfere with the party and its members’ First Amendment right to free speech.
State law says during county party’s elections for officers, the county’s “central committee shall elect the chairman of the county central committee, one state committeeman and one state committeewoman and other offices as provided by the party bylaws.”
The defendants argued that in this law, the phrase “as provided by the party bylaws” indicates elections are to be conducted according to bylaws that allow for elected officers to vote, whether precinct committee members or not. They further argued that since state law identifies the county central committee of each political party as consisting of precinct committeemen and committeewomen elected in the county at the regular biennial primary election with no mention of the word “only,” it was not intended for a central committee to only consist of elected precinct committee members.
The plaintiffs disagreed and said “as provided by the party bylaws” refers solely to “other offices” apart from the county officers.
“When the taxpayers of the state of Wyoming fund an election and members of the Republican Party of Wyoming vote in that election for positions which represent them in the county and state level, the state must have a legitimate interest in the regulation of the same,” the plaintiffs argued.
Bluemel said the court cannot add words to laws to create meaning and said the issue is limited for the county party to decide.
“If the legislature had intended the phrase ‘as provided by the party bylaws’ to act as instruction as to how the county central committee should carry out the election, syntax would have directed the legislature to position the phrase within the sentence to construct that meaning,” Bluemel wrote. “The court must assume that the arrangement of the words within the statute is an ‘intentional act by the legislature’ and the court will not read into the statute words that the legislature chose not to include.”
Bluemel denied the defendant’s request compelling the plaintiffs to disclose their funding sources for the litigation.
“While the Court has now resolved the matter in the Party’s favor, the case has uncovered a concerning trend of certain individuals seeking to divide the Republican Party,” Jackson said in her post.
A state-level political action committee known as Wyoming Hope was utilized to pay $5,000 of plaintiff Micheli’s legal expenses. This Teton County-based organization called Wyoming Hope, was set up by Jackson resident Wayne Hughes.
“For all perspectives involved, it was an important legal question needed to be answered: Do political parties need to follow Wyoming laws and statutes or simply internal bylaws?” Hughes told Cowboy State Daily. “The question needed to be answered so Wyoming could address it according to law.”
Hughes said Bluemel’s decision to find party bylaws more important than state law, was “kind of insane.”
Hughes purchased Cowboy State Daily in early 2022.
Conrad also filed a complaint with the Wyoming Secretary of State and solicited a criminal investigation against the Uinta County GOP officers. The Secretary of State determined that it lacked jurisdiction and no criminal charges were ever filed.