A recent Wyoming Supreme Court decision that county-level political parties can’t circumvent state law through their own rulemaking has some members of the Wyoming Republican Party scratching their heads.
“What the Supreme Court has done is perplexing,” said Park County State Committeeman Vince Vanata of the ruling handed down last week.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that political parties cannot expand on state law or make their own interpretations of how it’s written.
Specifically, the court ruled that the Uinta County Republican Party elections held in 2021 were in violation of state law because the party allowed its unelected leadership to vote in the election. The county party’s bylaws were changed about nine months prior to the election allowing this to happen.
The court ruled that only precinct committee members, people elected from publicly held primary elections, can vote in party leadership elections.
Party, Not High Court, Should Change
But Vanata said the decision doesn’t square with Wyoming law 22-4-105, which states that precinct committee members can elect people to leadership who are not precinct committee members.
The Supreme Court’s decision says that even though leadership is decided by publicly elected precinct committee members, the same people cannot vote in their own elections, which is contrary to standard electoral practice in the United States.
Former state legislator and Republican Party official, Tom Lubnau, who’s also an attorney, said the party should change its practices in response to the Supreme Court decision.
“The real concern is about lack of faith in what the law means,” Lubnau said. “There is such a lack of agreement in what anything means (that) nobody has faith in anything.”
Republican county party leadership elections happen in March in Wyoming, meaning that members of former leadership stay in power and start their terms two months after precinct committee members take their seats.
Most significantly, the decision moves political parties in Wyoming closer to being considered public entities rather than private.
Likely in response to the Uinta County lawsuit, at the Wyoming GOP’s most recent convention in 2022, the state party approved a bylaw change requiring county parties to let their leadership vote as full members of their county’s Central Committee if they are not precinct committee representatives.
What that did was codify the rule Uinta County made in 2021 into a statewide party bylaw directive, but Vanata said there are some county parties that are still not aligned with state GOP bylaws.
There were a handful of close Republican county party election votes this spring that could have been affected by leadership being allowed to cast ballots.
One of the most notable examples was in Sublette County, where state committeeman Mark Mickelson was promoted to chairman by about five votes, despite not being a precinct committee member.
Also voting in that election was former chairman Jim Robinson, who was not an elected precinct committee member, and Fran Robinson, who was reelected for state committeewoman despite losing her 2022 race to be a precinct committee member.
There also were at least two precinct committee members prevented from voting in the election, as voting by virtual means was not allowed, said Sublette precinct committee member Cat Urbigkit.
In Uinta County, a new slate of leadership was still elected by a narrow margin despite the former leadership — who were not elected precinct committee members — running to hold their seats and getting to vote.
In Campbell County, Vice Chair Heidi Gross was elected 63-62, but all members of leadership in Campbell were already precinct committee members. A similar situation happened in the Republican Party elections in Lincoln and Fremont counties.
Election results weren’t as close in the Park County GOP, but that party has three leadership members who are not precinct committee members.
Vanata said it is a “pretty common phenomena” to have unelected people in Republican county leadership positions. People are frequently appointed to political seats in Wyoming because of the state’s low population and factors such as people dying or moving away.
“It’s not an anomaly,” he said.
Joe Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said the recent Supreme Court ruling “doesn’t mean much for us.”
The state party only allows precinct committee members to vote in county leadership elections.
But what the Democratic Party does allow is for all its state legislators and statewide electeds to vote on state party matters, as they are automatically considered members of the state Democratic Central Committee.
These members also can vote in state party elections.
What It Means?
The Republican Party won’t have an opportunity to change its bylaws until the party’s next convention in spring 2024. Whether the party will change its bylaws at that time isn’t known.
“I don’t know where we go from here, I really don’t know,” Vanata said about the fallout from the Supreme Court ruling. “A lot of this is sitting back and figuring out what happens next.”
He said the Wyoming GOP’s legal counsel, Brian Shuck, is studying the Supreme Court’s decision and how it will affect the party.
Former Campbell County GOP chairman and current precinct committee member Heather Herr believes the party should change its bylaws to fall in-line with the ruling.
“I would hope they would because they can’t say they stand by one statute and say follow the rule of law and not say follow the rule of law for another,” she said.
Vanata believes the Supreme Court decision was a narrow opinion tailored specifically to the election in Uinta County and that coordinating state laws, party bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order is a constant balancing act.
“The Supreme Court does not make laws, the state Legislature does,” he said. “It interprets laws and renders opinions.”
There was no specific guidance given by the Supreme Court to the state GOP about how it should move forward. Although Supreme Court decisions rarely require action on matters that have already taken place, they do attempt to clarify what should happen in the future.
Risk Of Lawsuit
If the Wyoming Republican Party decides to disregard the Supreme Court decision, it opens a door for lawsuits.
Lawsuits have been a frequent topic of discussion at Wyoming Republican Party meetings over the past year, as the party has been involved in a few. This caused the party $89,000 in legal fees in the last biennium.
But at the state party’s central committee meeting earlier this month, party officials said the fact that all of the party’s lawsuits are completed and paid off is a sign that its finances are improving.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@Cowboystatedaily.com