LARAMIE – The Wyoming Supreme Court has thrown out a ruling by Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken, who determined in November that, contrary to common understanding, state law does not prevent local governments from regulating guns – so long as those guns are manufactured outside of Wyoming.
The case arose from the prosecution of Lyle Williams, a Uinta County man who was charged with trespassing in 2018 after violating a University of Wyoming regulation by open-carrying a gun at the UW Conference Center during the annual Wyoming Republican Party State Convention.
Since the trespassing charge was merely a misdemeanor, Williams was charged in Albany County’s circuit court.
Williams’ attorney, Jason Tangeman, filed for a declaratory judgment on the matter in Kricken’s court, leading to the November decision that upended the common understanding of Wyoming’s gun laws.
But Wednesday morning, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that Kricken had overstepped her authority by even making a ruling in the case.
Justice Kate Fox wrote the prevailing opinion, with Justices Kari Gray and Lynne Boomgaarden joining her.
It should have been Kricken’s upstairs neighbor in the courthouse, Circuit Court Judge Robert Castor, to decide – as part of Williams’ prosecution – whether UW’s gun regulations violate state law, the majority wrote.
The Supreme Court has remanded the case back to Kricken with instructions for the judge to dismiss the case.
Ultimately, the court didn’t make a determination on whether Kricken had correctly interpreted the law.
“It’s frustrating that the court did not take the case up on its merits, and, at this juncture, there are several different options legally, which we will be evaluating over the next few days and weeks and make a decision from there,” Tangeman told the Laramie Boomerang. “Ultimately, we want to get this back in front of the Supreme Court.”
The university released a statement Tuesday afternoon that simply stated “the university will continue to enforce its current regulation” until there’s a final court decision on the matter.
Lawyers for the university had never argued Albany County district court didn’t have standing to hear the case. When the case arrived at the Supreme Court, neither party questioned the standing.
“However, because standing is a ‘vital jurisprudential’ rule, a ‘court may still, and should, raise standing issues sua sponte when the parties do not,” Fox wrote in the majority opinion. “We find it necessary to address this issue to protect the integrity of the judicial process.”
Kricken did actually note the question of standing in her ruling, but wrote that she decided to make a ruling anyway, saying that “relaxed standing requirements are appropriate” because the case “raised a matter of great public importance.”
The majority of the Supreme Court took issue with that rationale, however.
“The district court abused its discretion when it concluded that Mr. Williams’ declaratory judgment action served a useful purpose,” Fox wrote. “Despite the allure of weighing in on important constitutional and statutory issues, we are mindful of the principles of judicial restraint and the integrity of the judicial process.”
Much of the majority’s reason for throwing out Kricken’s decision was based on a precedent the Wyoming Supreme Court set in Heiling v. Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, a case decided in 2003 that created a framework for when a declaratory judgment action should be dismissed because another similar proceeding is pending.
Those circumstances include:
- The declaratory judgment action was intended to be used to force the other party to have a dress rehearsal of an issue to be tried in the main case.
- The holding in the declaratory judgment action might inappropriately collaterally stop the parties to the main action as to certain factual issues.
- Such a proceeding would unduly burden the opposing party and improperly allow control of the litigation to be wrested from the initiator of the original action.
- Such a declaratory judgment would violate the principle of judicial economy.
- Such an action would constitute an unwarranted interference with another court’s proceedings.
Because Williams had been charged with trespassing, Kricken suggested that it wouldn’t have been possible for him to seek a legal interpretation of Wyoming’s gun laws in circuit court.
“While Mr. Williams’ alleged violation of (UW regulations) served as the underlying basis for his request to depart University property, the substantive issue before the circuit court is whether Mr. Williams remained on University property after being notified to depart,” Kricken said. “That criminal law issue is independent of the underlying validity of UW (regulations). This Court, then, does not and cannot conclude that Mr. Williams has, as an available avenue of relief, the ability to challenge the validity of (UW regulations) in the circuit court.”
Fox panned that thinking, especially since Castor had stayed his proceedings until Kricken concluded hers.
“If the circuit court trespass action would proceed regardless of the outcome of the district court action, there would have been no reason for the stay in circuit court,” Fox said.
Both Chief Justice Michael Davis and Justice Keith Kautz dissented.
In an opinion written by Kautz, the pair said the majority ruling “places an undue burden on the county prosecutor in the trespass case by requiring that office to represent and defend the interests of the University Board of Trustees.”
“I cannot agree that the majority’s decision promotes judicial economy or demonstrates necessary judicial restraint,” Kautz wrote. “It simply avoids the primary issue and forces additional unnecessary litigation. This Court should consider Mr. Williams’ claims on their merits at some point. I see no reason that should not happen now.”
Unlike Fox, Kautz said Kricken might be the only judge with original jurisdiction over the matter, arguing that the invalidity of UW’s regulation might provide no defense in Williams’ trespassing case.
“There is nothing in the plain language of the statute requiring the landowner to have a valid reason for asking the person to leave,” Kautz said. “Instead, a criminal trespass is complete when a person remains on the property of another after being told to depart. The reason the UW police told Mr. Williams to depart may be immaterial.”
Kautz said the majority ruling sets the case up for a lengthy, unnecessary process.
“It is clear to me that judicial economy is served by this Court addressing the issues presented in the declaratory relief action now,” Kautz said. “The majority’s approach does not serve judicial economy – it requires the circuit court to consider all the issues already decided by the district court, plus any others solely related to the criminal case. Then, if the circuit court rules against Mr. Williams, he would have to appeal to the district court, and assuming the district court ruled consistently with its ruling in the declaratory relief case, apply for a writ of review to this Court. On the other hand, if the circuit court found the UW regulation invalid, the state would have to apply for a writ to have the district court and this Court review the matter.”