January 23, 2017

Court denies Wyoming county’s voting rights appeal

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected Fremont County’s appeal of a voting rights challenge by American Indians that has forced the county to abandon its system of at-large voting for commissioners.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upholds a 2010 ruling by U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne. Johnson had ruled in favor of members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes who claimed Fremont County’s system of at-large voting for county commissioners violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the Indian vote.

Fremont County didn’t contest Johnson’s finding that at-large voting violated the law. But the county appealed after Johnson rejected its proposals to remediate the violation by creating a single, Indian majority district centered on the Wind River Indian Reservation while continuing with at-large voting in the rest of the county.

In rejecting the county’s plan for “hybrid” voting districts, Johnson wrote in 2010, “The (county’s) plans appear to be devised solely for the purpose of segregating citizens into separate voting districts on the basis of race without sufficient justification, contrary to the defendants’ assertions.”

The 10th Circuit panel, in its decision on Wednesday, sided with Johnson, saying there was no reason to accept a hybrid voting plan when state law in effect at the time didn’t recognize that approach. The Wyoming Legislature last year changed state law to allow such hybrid voting plans.

“This is surely not what Congress intended the Voting Rights Act to be – carte blanche for local governments seeking to flout otherwise valid state laws,” the appeals court ruling written by Judge Jerome A. Holmes stated.

Holmes wrote that the court ruling wouldn’t prevent Fremont County from trying to implement its desired plan through normal processes of state law. And he wrote that the ruling didn’t speak to whether such a plan would satisfy federal requirements.

Gary Collins, one of the plaintiffs, is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and liaison between his tribe and state government. He said Wednesday he was pleased with the appeals court ruling.

“It wasn’t so much the individuals as plaintiffs, it really was for all of Indian Country not only on the reservation in Wyoming, but other places as well,” Collins said. “Through our lives, we’ve had different forms of discrimination and innuendos toward our race, either verbally or media. So this is a very welcome victory in so many ways. It’s more than just a legal issue. It really goes to the heart and tradition of people, Native American people.”

Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Atlanta-based Voting Rights Project, worked with local lawyers in representing Collins and the others. He said Wednesday he believes Fremont County wouldn’t succeed if it tried to implement a new hybrid voting plan relying on last year’s change in state law.

Creating single-member commission districts gives Indians a better chance to have an equal say in county government, McDonald said.

“Our clients felt very strongly that the hybrid plan had a lot of things wrong with it. That it would put the Indians in one district and whites would be the overwhelming majority in the district that elected four members,” McDonald said. “It really treated whites differently.”

Voting Rights Act lawsuits are complicated and require extensive investigation into a county’s history and voting patterns, McDonald said. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have a bill pending with Johnson’s court seeking over $700,000 in legal fees and expenses work performed before the appeal.

Andy Baldwin, lawyer for the plaintiffs in Lander, also said Wednesday he was pleased with the decision. “We’re gratified that the county does not have unlimited discretion to disregard state or federal law,” he said.

Scott Detamore, a lawyer at Mountain States Legal Foundation in Colorado, represents Fremont County. He said Wednesday he’s disappointed with the court’s ruling. He said it will be up to Fremont County to determine how it wants to proceed.

Pat Hickerson of Lander, vice chairman of the Fremont County Commission, said Wednesday the county hasn’t decided how it will respond.

“I’m disappointed, because I think our proposed plan would have been better for the voters, and would have provided a better commission in the long run,” Hickerson said.

Hickerson said he believes Fremont County commissioners have been paying more attention to the regional interests of their districts, rather than considering the county as a whole, since Johnson ordered it to drop at-large voting.

“The regionalization issue can change the way commissioners look at issues,” Hickerson said.