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High road or low?

Jan 31, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

The state superintendent's enemies must ask themselves that question

Stung, understandably, by the Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that declared their law, intended to topple State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, to be unconstitutional, her opponents now face a choice.

Will they accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land, permit Hill to resume her former duties as head of the Wyoming Department of Education, and begin to put their divisive and destructive war against her behind them?

Or will they thrash about in embarrassment, turn toward vindictiveness, and then seek revenge?

In other words, will it be the high road or the low?

Late on Thursday, it was announced that the governor and the Wyoming Attorney General would ask the Supreme Court to "review" the case upon which it had just ruled. There is no realistic avenue for a formal appeal on the ruling. It would have to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would have no reason to hear the case, so the request for review is the best the sour-grapes set can do.

Even that would seem to hold little promise for reversing the court's ruling -- except for this: The justices who reconsidered the case may not be the same ones who ruled on it this week. Justice Barton Voigt has retired, and he was one of the three votes to overturn SF104. The high court's decision was 3-2. Gov. Mead appointed Kate Fox to replace Voigt . She did not hear or vote on the Hill case, but if she were to hear it this time and vote the other way, then the earlier ruling could be reversed.

Already, one associate justice -- former Riverton resident William Hill -- has recused himself from the proceedings due to his wife's association (unfriendly, so everyone says) with the state superintendent of the Department of Education. He was replaced with a retired justice who, apparently, was known to be a reliable vote in favor of SF104 before he was appointed to hear the case. So, if the new Supreme Court justice is friendly to the anti-Hill position, it could change everything.

At the very least, a rehearing could take months -- say, just long enough to cloud the Republican gubernatorial primary campaign in which Cindy Hill is running.

Meanwhile, obstacles to Hill's resumption of her old duties are being erected bureaucratically. Every possible bit of foot-dragging that can be done is being done, and what originally had been seen as Hill's quick return to the WDE chair now is on an uncertain timetable. Hill's foes want to keep it from happening at all, court ruling or no, and the next best thing in their eyes is to put it off for as long as possible -- even to the end of her term 11 months from now if they can manage it. And they just might.

Hovering nearby is the Wyoming Legislature, which convenes in 10 days. Might lawmakers try to pass a revised law to block Hill that could withstand constitutional scrutiny? They have the 82-page Supreme Court ruling as a blueprint of what not to do a second time.

The session this year is shorter, intended to deal with the state's budget, and it is difficult to introduce a non-budget bill. But the posse riding against the superintendent proved last year how quickly a law can be created and shoved through the process when the right people are pushing.

Don't forget that the special legislative committee lined up for the Hill inquisition still could have a card to play. The investigation aimed at impeachment has whiffed on just about every pitch so far, but all it takes is a vote of the majority to proceed with impeachment. Rumblings from Cheyenne suggest the committee is poised to do just that if the Supreme Court and legislative schemes don't go the way Hill's enemies want them to.

The perfect solution for the Hill wreckers would be the one thing that always has eluded them -- clear proof of an egregious offense by Hill that could pass muster with the public as sufficient grounds to run her out of office. But if that needle exists, it's still lost in the haystack.

Of all the available options, it seems clear that the most logical one -- honoring the Wyoming Supreme Court's ruling and restoring the superintendent's role and authority -- is the last thing the power players in Cheyenne intend to do.

It's hard to go wrong taking the high road. Would defying the ruling, trying to have a different panel re-hear the case, employing delay tactics, and end-running the normal legislative process meet that description? Perhaps it depends on whose map is being used.

So far, however, the anti-Hill faction has miscalculated again and again in terms of public relations, legislative investigation and, now, legal interpretation. At the very least there is an air of desperation about all these new maneuvers, and it is not likely to go unnoticed by the Wyoming public.

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