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Anti-abortion intervenors blocked from legal proceedings


Anti-abortion intervenors blocked from legal proceedings

Jun 02, 2023 | 8:57 am ET
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile
News From The States

JACKSON—Finding they had no direct, substantial, legally protected interest, a district court judge said Secretary of State Chuck Gray, two legislators and an anti-abortion group could not join a suit challenging Wyoming’s abortion-ban law.

Ninth District Judge Melissa Owens ruled from the bench Friday after hearing almost two-and-a-half hours of arguments regarding proposed involvement of Gray, Reps. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) and Right to Life of Wyoming.

Among other reasons, Owens said involvement of the proposed intervenors would unduly complicate and delay the case and politicize the issue. “There’s no room in this courtroom to make this a political foreground,” she said.

The judicial framework “seems to be working as it is supposed to,” Owens said. She denied intervenor status, in part, to avoid the case becoming a “political-judicial process.”

She made her comments as Neiman, Rodriguez-Williams and their attorney Timothy Garrison of Alliance Defending Freedom sat before her. The legislators and other proposed intervenors wanted to join Gov. Mark Gordon and other officials in defending the state’s near-total abortion ban law against a suit brought by several women and healthcare providers. ADF represented the would-be intervenors pro bono, according to Gray.

The plaintiffs, Attorney General Bridget Hill and Gordon opposed the secretary of state’s request to join their defense.

Owens has already temporarily stopped enforcement of the law and told the state to inform all prosecutors about her decision.

Plaintiffs also asked the judge to issue a restraining order on a separate medication abortion ban — set to take effect July 1. Owens has yet to rule on the request. A hearing to discuss the matter is scheduled for June 22. 

Among their arguments the proposed intervenors said the state attorney general’s office would not adequately represent them as the case is further litigated and that allowing them into the case would “sharpen the adversarial process and augment the record as this case progresses to a resolution on the merits.”

“At the legislative level there was a full debate,” Owens said as she described the evolution of the abortion ban law. “The state then vowed to enforce this law … and that’s what the state had been doing.”

Separate arguments all fail

Owens considered each proposed intervenor’s argument, “as separate and distinct,” she said.

Gray had argued that he was the keeper of the legislative record and first in line of gubernatorial succession to Gordon. Gray shouldn’t be allowed to intervene because no Wyoming statute allows that and his advocacy against abortion “isn’t legally relevant,” State Special Assistant Attorney General Jay Jerde said.

Owens acknowledged that Rodriguez-Williams and Neiman, along with Right to Life, were genuine, even decades-long advocates for their causes and interests. Nevertheless, that didn’t meet the standard for intervention, “all based on law … case law,” Owens said.

Proposed intervenors’ lawyer Garrison likened their case to one involving an owl advocate who was admitted to participate in an endangered-species wildlife suit. In that instance, however, the owl advocate was arguing against the defending government agency. In the matter at hand, the proposed intervenors are on the same side as the defending government.

“Here [in the abortion-ban case] we have state defendants and proposed intervenors taking the same position in their answers — and that is to defend the law,” Owens said. That the state and proposed intervenors might have different tactical strategies “does not rise to the level of the court allowing [the parties] to intervene.”

The women and groups that challenged the abortion-ban law contend it is vague, violates Wyoming residents’ constitutional right to make their own health care decisions, violates religious freedom and also equal protection.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.