Fremont County proceeds with voting rights appeal

Lander, Wyoming (AP) November 2010
Fremont County will proceed with its appeal of a federal judge’s order that it abandon at-large voting for county commissioners despite a state insurance pool’s decision not to pay for the effort.

The Fremont County Commission voted 4-1 last week to continue with its appeal of a decision by U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne that ordered the county to set up separate voting districts for commissioners.

The commission’s vote follows last week’s decision by the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool not to pay for the county’s appeal. The pool serves essentially as an insurance fund for local governments around the state, collecting dues from them and then paying out money to cover claims.

“I think it’s important we try and prevent poor case law or poor judicial practice to be put in place,” Fremont County Commission chairman Doug Thompson said after last week's meeting.

Commissioner Keja Whiteman cast the lone vote against continuing with the appeal. She said at the meeting that she didn’t want to pay for it and didn’t think it was a good move for the county.

Johnson’s ruling this spring came in response to a lawsuit filed in 2005 by a group of American Indians represented by staff lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

Johnson agreed with the plaintiffs that the county’s long-standing system of at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the Indian vote.

Fremont County includes the Wind River Indian Reservation, the only reservation in Wyoming and home to both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

The county this week filed a brief in Denver appeals court challenging aspects of Johnson’s ruling. The county claims it was wrong of Johnson to reject its plan to designate a single voting district covering the Wind River Indian Reservation while allowing at-large voting elsewhere.

The Indians’ lawyers have submitted a request to Johnson, asking him to force Fremont County to pay over $880,000 to cover legal fees and costs associated with the case in his court. The county has objected, and is scheduled to file a response to that request later this month.

Mark Pring, executive director of the liability pool, said the pool’s board members decided it won’t pay for the county’s appeal. The board would be responsible for the costs and fees that Johnson approves, he said.

Fremont County officials say they expect to pay between $25,000 to $40,000 for costs on the appeal.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado legal group, is providing the county with free legal services in the case. However, if Fremont County loses the appeal, it could also be responsible for the plaintiffs’ costs and legal fees in the appeals proceeding.