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Appeals court says 'no' to county in voting rights case

Feb 23, 2012 - By Martin Reed Staff Writer

A three-judge appeals court panel on Wednesday denied Fremont County government's attempt to deviate from a previous ruling that created five single-member districts for electing county commissioners.

In the 32-page decision by the Denver-based federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the judges upheld the decision that created the districts so American Indians could elect their commission candidate of choice.

The county disagreed with Wyoming's U.S. District Court's decision against picking a hybrid election system consisting of a commission district encompassing primarily the Wind River Indian Reservation. with the remaining four board members picked at-large.

But the appeals panel determined the lower court did not overstep its authority in implementing the five single-member districts for the county.

No 'compelling reason'

"The County does not contend that a 'compelling reason' exists to deviate from this preferred arrangement ... nor does our independent review of the record suggest that there is one," the appeals court ruled.

"Accordingly, we conclude that the district court properly followed the Supreme Court's guidance regarding single-member districts, and it did not abuse its discretion when crafting its own remedial plan," the court stated.

Gary Collins, one of the five plaintiffs from the reservation who launched the lawsuit in 2005 against the county, said in an interview on Thursday he was pleased with the ruling.

"I welcome the 10th Circuit Court's decision, and I hope that it lets the community know that their tribal vote is important and we're a part of the county as citizens, and we get appropriate representation in the county commission as we move forward," Collins said.

While praising the ruling, Collins criticized the commission's decision to pursue the appeal at a cost to taxpayers.

"I am concerned about how much the county spent in this whole effort ... and those dollars spent in this case could have been used to keep libraries open, for example, or fix some roads or something else," he said.

Laughlin McDonald, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project based in Atlanta, said in a phone interview on Thursday that the ruling is "a big victory for the plaintiffs."

The appeals judges "fully supported the decision of the district court that there was no deference due to the hybrid plan," McDonald said. "I think it's clear the court approved all aspects of the district court's reasoning."

Not surprised

Commission chairman Doug Thompson on Thursday said the ruling was not a surprise.

"The decision was not unexpected on my part. I didn't think that the appeals court judges would rein in one of their own on a different level," he said.

Thompson said he disagrees with the appeals court's determination that single-member districts were appropriate.

"I obviously think that's a misinterpretation of the law. It's a legislative function, not a judicial function, to set those districts," he said.

The appeals court's ruling is the latest in the case that had a nine-day trial in 2007 followed by federal Judge Alan B. Johnson's ruling in 2010 that created the single-member districts to correct the Voting Rights Act Section 2 violation.

Wednesday's ruling emphasized that Wyoming law at the time did not allow for the hybrid districts proposed by Fremont County government's attorneys.

"Put into context, if Wyoming law does not allow for a hybrid voting scheme, then it is only the dictate of this federal court that would give the County the authority to implement its plan," according to the ruling.

The court noted that granting the county's plan over state law "would, in essence, be using the authority of the federal courts to elevate a subordinate over its superior."

State approved 'hybrids'

State lawmakers last year approved legislation that allows the hybrid districts proposed by the county.

"Our ruling here today does not foreclose the possibility that the County may ultimately implement its desired plan through the normal processes established by Wyoming law," according to the appeals court.

"We do not opine on whether such a plan would satisfy the strictures of the Constitution or Section 2" of the Voting Rights Act, the ruling states.

"We simply hold here that federal courts owe no deference to Section 2 remedial plans offered by political subdivisions of a State, when those plans unnecessarily conflict with state law, and that the district court here exercised sound and permissible discretion in adopting its chosen plan," according to the ruling.

Uncertain future

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson on Thursday said he was unsure how the state statute affects Fremont County's case.

"They weighed heavily on how state law did not allow those hybrid districts," Hickerson said. "That law has been changed. I don't specifically know how that applies to our case."

He also disagreed with the outcome. "I think it was kind of expected. I still have concerns about the way commissioners of the future will manage the county when their only real oversight is just to a small portion of the county -- a district," he said.

"I think that (the county's) proposed solution meets the legal mandates of the Voting Rights Act. I think the judges have pushed that a little farther than they should, but I think it's a decision we will probably have to live with for awhile at least," Hickerson said.