A Wyoming judge on Friday barred Secretary of State Chuck Gray, a pro-life group and two state legislators from joining a lawsuit against the state to defend its recent abortion bans.
Gray, Wyoming Right to Life and Reps. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, all asked Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens in March to let them join the lawsuit.
Owens said letting them join would politicize the case.
“There’s no room in this courtroom to make a political foreground, and I will say the process is in place. And the process is happening, and the process seems to be working as it’s supposed to,” said Owens, voicing her denial from the bench during Friday’s hearing.
The ruling is a “sad day for the unborn,” said Neiman in a text to Cowboy State Daily following the hearing. “But we will not give up.”
Neiman and Rodriguez-Williams were key sponsors on the main abortion ban, and Neiman is the House majority floor leader in the Wyoming Legislature.
Not A Present Interest
Gray and the others had asserted that their respective legacies of pro-life advocacy should give them standing to defend the abortion bans, especially since the abortion-access advocates suing the state are urging the court to elevate elective abortion to a constitutional right in Wyoming.
Owens first denied Gray’s bid to join the lawsuit. She said his past advocacy, and his future prospect of becoming governor if Gov. Mark Gordon dies or becomes unable to serve, are not present interests demanding a court’s protection.
“He’s not asserting a direct, substantial and legally protectable interest by statute; he does not have that type of interest,” said Owens.
She also referenced an argument by Jay Jerde, the Wyoming Attorney General’s deputy defending the law, in which Jerde said Gray’s role as secretary of state is limited to powers conferred specifically in state laws.
Jerde on behalf of the attorney general and Gov. Gordon, whom the abortion advocates are suing, opposed Gray’s entrance into the legal battle. But the executive branch didn’t oppose intervention from the legislators and pro-life group.
The Wheels Of Justice
Owens said the law doesn’t confer case standing upon Wyoming Right to Life either.
Even without law-given standing, argued the group’s attorney Tim Garrison, Owens had the option to let the proposed intervenors into the lawsuit anyway, if it would serve the interest of justice.
Owens countered, saying letting Gray and the pro-life group into the suit “would simply cause complications and delay to the case, and politicize the issues.”
Lawmakers, Also No
Owens said she appreciates Neiman and Rodriguez-Williams’ years of pro-life advocacy.
But she worried, again, that letting them into the lawsuit would politicize it.
“(I am) walking the motions just as I would in any other case,” said Owens, adding that she often addresses constitutional questions, “particularly in this litigious county, with civil cases.”
Jerde said he was surprised at how much the other lawyers, Garrison and the plaintiffs’ attorney Peter Modlin, talked about him in the Friday hearing.
Gray and the others had claimed that Jerde was not adequately defending the law, though their lawyer Garrison said they are “cordial” with him.
“He makes some excellent legal arguments,” Garrison said “I look forward to supporting them.”
But Jerde and his clients — the governor and AG — have said they don’t want to take this case to a trial and hash out the abortion ban’s possible effects through evidence. They have said, rather, that they want Owens to study the ban, and consider the Wyoming Constitution and its promise of health care autonomy for its residents, then decide if the law is constitutional.
Garrison characterized this approach as tepid.
He said the legislators, Gray and pro-life group were prepared to bring expert testimony and evidence to a trial to show that the Constitution’s health-care autonomy provision was never meant to confer a right to abortion and that abortion is not health care.
Owens countered, saying that Jerde is defending the law, and that ultimately Jerde and the proposed intervenors have the same end goal.
In cases where courts have allowed intervenors to defend laws alongside the government, the government has had different interests than the intervenors, Owens said. She said that’s not the case here.
Gordon signed both abortion bans into law in March — one banning nearly all abortions except in certain medical emergencies, and another banning all chemical abortions.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Modlin, said he will argue that Jerde’s defense of the law “has no merit,” but that it is “vigorous” and that Jerde is defending the law.
Owens set a scheduling conference for June 7 at 3 p.m.
Contact Clair McFarland at: Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com