The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled in favor of former state legislator and Uinta County Republican Party State Committeeman Ron Micheli.
The decision moves political parties closer to being considered public entities in Wyoming by saying they cannot expand on state law or make their own interpretations of how it’s written.
Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Keith Kautz, widely considered the most conservative member of the court, issued the opinion Thursday morning.
Micheli, state Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View, Clarence Vranish and other residents filed a civil lawsuit in Uinta County District Court about the party’s 2021 leadership elections.
In the lawsuit, they argue that party officers should not have been allowed to vote in the 2021 leadership election because they had already lost their respective precinct committee elections in August 2020. None of the six appointed leaders were elected in precinct elections that August either, but that’s partially because a few didn’t run.
The former party office holders were voted out of office in the county party’s elections this spring.
They had argued state law does not apply to the dispute over the elections because it was an internal party matter. Past court precedent has determined that political party disputes are usually handled best internally and that courts should only get involved as a last resort.
The Supreme Court acknowledged this precedent but said it can intervene to determine whether a political party’s internal rules comply with state law. The regulation of political party officers is addressed in Wyoming law.
The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the former leadership, which consisted of Elisabeth “Biffy” Jackson, Karl Allred and Jana Williams, violated state law when they conducted their elections.
Allred changed the county party’s bylaws in June 2020 to allow leadership to vote in the elections in addition to central committee members.
The Supreme Court said that by expanding the group of those who could vote, it rendered state law meaningless, which it can’t do.
“The statute clearly designated a specific group of people who could vote — the county central committee,” Kautz said. “That committee is made up of precinct committeepersons elected in the preceding year’s primary.”
‘A Desperate Attempt To Hold Onto Power’
The court ruled that although a political party may install new officers, it may not use its bylaws to expand who can vote in party elections.
“Affirming political entities must be law-abiding is what this case was all about,” Micheli told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday morning. “This case was never about who won or lost an election. This case was only about whether the party establishment could manipulate the process in a desperate attempt to hold onto power in a way that violated Wyoming law.”
Conrad filed complaints with the Wyoming Republican Party State Central Committee Investigation Committee, the Uinta County Clerk and the Wyoming Secretary of State, claiming the voting procedure used in the 2021 election was improper.
The state GOP determined the voting procedure was proper, and the Wyoming secretary of state found election misconduct.
“The Wyoming people are grateful that the Republican Party establishment must follow the law, just as is required of every other citizen and entity,” Micheli said.
Leadership of the Wyoming Republican Party has made vague references to the lawsuit over the past year, always indicating it agrees with the former Uinta County party officers.
How much autonomy political parties have from state law has been debated in Wyoming political circles over the last few years. Many members of the Wyoming Republican Party have argued that since political parties are private entities, they can make whatever rules they want, despite the fact their precinct committee members are publicly elected.
Similar to the 2021 Uinta County elections, the state GOP let its leadership vote during the state party’s elections earlier this month, but state law addresses these election differently and lets state parties count its elected officers as voting members of the state central committee.
Political parties in Wyoming also have the power to choose nominees when appointing statewide officials.
That drew a lawsuit in early 2022 when a group of about 15 people sued the Wyoming Republican Party about the voting process that was used to select nominees for an interim superintendent of public instruction. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed in favor of the state party.
The Uinta County case was first brought before District Court Judge Joseph Bluemel, who in 2022 ruled in favor of the old leadership. Bluemel argued that state law is purposely written in an unambiguous manner to avoid overregulating political associations, and also asserted that political party bylaws can supersede state laws.
Bluemel also indicated the county party’s constitutional right to freedom of political association would be unduly burdened if it was prohibited from adopting its own bylaws by state laws.
During his arguments before the State Supreme Court in February, Cheyenne attorney Caleb Wilkins, representing the former leadership, brought up the constitutional claim. He did not provide prior notice he would be arguing this, so the court, despite saying there could be grounds for a discussion about that in Thursday’s filing, refused to consider it.
So Now Who Pays?
Members of the old leadership took to social media this past winter, pleading for donations to help pay their lawyer expenses related to the case.
But this spring, all of the former leadership was voted out, and Micheli became new committeman of the party.
This created a confusing situation where Micheli was in some ways suing himself as he became an official representative of the Uinta County Republican Party.
Because of his election, Micheli and the other new leaders will be responsible for paying the legal expenses of the defendants to Wilkins.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.