Over 999,000 readers this year!

Wyoming Supreme Court: Anti-abortion lawmakers, group can’t intervene in lawsuit over bans

Justices found the three lacked standing to be allowed as direct parties to the suit. That’s after more than a year of the trio trying to directly participate in the legal fight over Wyoming’s two abortion bans.

Wyoming Supreme Court and State Library (Lisa Hushbeck/Cap City News)

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Anti-abortion lawmakers and Right to Life Wyoming won’t be joining the legal fight to preserve abortion bans in the state — at least not directly. 

The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Friday that this group, which had fought since fall 2022 to join the suit against the two bans, will not be allowed to intervene. The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office is already defending the bans.

“The district court reasonably concluded the State Defendants adequately represented the Proposed Intervenors’ interest and permissive intervention would cause undue delay and prejudice,” the justices wrote in their decision. “It therefore did not abuse its discretion in denying permissive intervention.”

Justices added that they didn’t question the dedication or efforts of the lawmakers or Right to Life Wyoming, but disagreed that their interests are unique from the public generally.

“The persuasive weight of authority holds that advocating for a policy and lobbying for legislation to enact that policy does not give an individual or entity a protectable interest in a legal challenge to the subsequently enacted law,” they stated.

The justices added that their concern with allowing intervention “based on a policy interest shared by the general public is the potential for interjection of political debate into a purely legal proceeding. Courts are not forums for such debates.”

Reps. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) and the anti-abortion organization fought to join the suit because they said their work outside — and inside — the Wyoming Legislature could be threatened if the bans were blocked. The lawmakers were also sponsors or co-sponsors in both abortion bans, which are on hold as the legal challenge to them proceeds through the courts.

The three also argued the state wasn’t presenting enough factual evidence in the case to support the bans.

However, the justices disagreed on all points, finding the trio didn’t have the standing to intervene, nor could they intervene because they simply disagreed with the state’s approach.

“The Proposed Intervenors do not have a protectable interest in this litigation, and thus the district court did not err in denying them intervention as of right,” the opinion states.

As to whether lawmakers’ work at the Legislature could be affected by this lawsuit, the justices were unequivocal: “Regardless of the outcome of this case, the legislature may still legislate in these areas. To the extent it must do so within constitutional parameters established by a court decision in the case, that is not a diminution of its power, but is instead a product of the separation of powers that underpins our government.”

In response to the court’s opinion, Rodriguez-Williams stated in an email that, “While we are disappointed in the court’s decision, we are proud to continue our pro-life work in the legislature and in our everyday lives. I pray that the courts will uphold Wyoming’s pro-life law, which will save lives and protect women’s health.”

The trio’s legal counsel — conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom — added that Wyoming will “continue its life-saving efforts.”

“We’re proud to serve alongside Right to Life of Wyoming and Reps. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams and Chip Neiman, who remain dedicated to seizing every opportunity to protect vulnerable members of our society,” ADF Senior Counsel Tim Garrison stated.

Had they been allowed to intervene, the case before the 9th District Court in Teton County could’ve been set back months as various motions and arguments were relitigated, according to the plaintiffs’ arguments before the high court. Their concern over unwarranted delays was shared by the justices.

“The district court found that because the Proposed Intervenors and the State Defendants seek the same objective in the litigation, intervention would risk duplicative and cumulative argument, which would delay the matter to the detriment of the parties,” the opinion states. 

Plaintiffs in the larger abortion ban suit include women, health care providers and an aid group. Defendants include the state, governor, attorney general, Teton County sheriff and Jackson’s chief of police.

Justice Lynne Boomgaarden also signaled in a December hearing that she was concerned this appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court was premature. That’s because the judge in Teton County could determine there were no fact issues in this case — which the intervenors wanted to present evidence on — and issue a summary judgment in favor of one of the parties, effectively deciding the case without a trial. 

The history

This group of three initially sought to intervene in the first lawsuit against Wyoming’s “trigger” abortion ban, which was set into motion once Roe v. Wade was overturned. 

That ban was challenged in court and, the day it was set to go into effect in July 2022, 9th District Judge Melissa Owens issued a temporary restraining order followed by a preliminary injunction.

Then, Owens denied the trio intervention in that lawsuit, so they appealed her decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court. However, that case was voluntarily dismissed earlier this year after state lawmakers passed two new abortion bans in the 2023 legislative session. 

House Bill 152 – Life is a Human Right Act is a near-total abortion ban that replaced the trigger ban. It carves out exceptions for cases of rape, incest or if a mother’s life is threatened. However, plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that these exceptions can be difficult if not impossible to clearly meet, given reporting requirements and ambiguous medical language. 

Senate File 109 – Prohibiting chemical abortions is the state’s second ban. It was the first of its kind in the country that specifically banned medications used to induce abortion. In Wyoming, that was how nearly all reported abortions were performed before Wellspring Health Access opened in April in Casper, providing surgical abortions. 

The near-total ban was set to go into effect upon passage while the medication ban was slated to go into effect in July.

A suit was filed against the near-total ban on the day the governor let it go into effect without his signature — March 17 — and Owens stalled its enforcement on March 22. The medication ban was later rolled into that same lawsuit, receiving its own temporary restraining order in June. 

Once again, the trio of anti-abortion advocates filed to actively join the lawsuit as intervenors. However, this time they were joined in the fight by Secretary of State Chuck Gray. 

Plaintiffs in the case argued that none of them should be allowed to intervene, while the state only specifically argued against Gray joining.

“Public officers such as the Secretary of State ‘have and can exercise only such powers as are conferred to them by law,’” the state’s filing says. “In his official capacity, Secretary of State Gray cannot intervene in this case unless a Wyoming statute authorizes him to do so.”

Gray contended he has standing, but didn’t continue his fight to intervene beyond his initial request. 

Owens denied the group intervention in June, and the original three — sans Gray — appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. 

As it stands, the lawsuit against Wyoming’s two bans remains in district court in Teton County. Owens is now mulling over dueling requests from the plaintiffs and state for her to rule on their behalf without a trial. She could also decide that a trial is necessary and schedule it for a later date.

To review summaries of the plaintiffs’ or state’s arguments in this case, go herehere and here

Most abortion remains legal in Wyoming. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.