Wyoming’s secretary of state and other parties cannot intervene in abortion case

A Teton County judge denied the request today from Secretary Gray and others to defend the state's near-total abortion ban, currently blocked during litigation.
Wyoming State Reps. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams and Chip Neiman listen during a hearing on their request to defend Wyoming's abortion ban Friday in Teton County District Court. (BRADLY J. BONER/JACKSON HOLE NEWS&GUIDE, POOL)

Wyoming’s secretary of state and other parties will not be allowed to weigh in on a lawsuit that could decide the future of reproductive rights in the state. 

Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens speaks during a hearing Friday where she denied a request by lawmakers, Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray and Right to Life Wyoming to defend the laws that ban most abortions in the state. (BRADLY J. BONER/JACKSON HOLE NEWS&GUIDE, POOL)

Secretary Chuck Gray, two conservative state lawmakers and an anti-abortion advocacy organization tried to intervene to help defend the state’s near-complete abortion ban, currently being held up in the courts. 

But Teton County Judge Melissa Owens decided the group didn’t qualify as intervenors.

“That would simply cause complications and delay the case and politicize the issues,” Owens said in her final ruling.

Abortion is currently legal in Wyoming, since the judge blocked the state’s near-total abortion ban — deemed the “Life is a Human Right Act” — earlier this year after a group of reproductive rights advocates sued the state. 

This is the second time that Republican state Reps. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams and Chip Neiman and nonprofit Wyoming Right to Life have tried to intervene in an abortion-related case, only to be denied by the court. 

The intervenors

Gray, the state’s top election official, wasn’t at the hearing and didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication. He has previously stated that he has years of anti-abortion advocacy under his belt and has an interest in ensuring state laws reflect residents’ views.

He and the other intervenors are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national Christian legal advocacy group. Their lawyer, who’s based in Missouri, said that the proposed intervenors’ work would be in jeopardy if abortion becomes a constitutional right. 

The counsel also argued that the group was being inadequately represented by the state’s legal team, which hasn’t been providing evidence.

Special Assistant Attorney General Jay Jerde said the state and the intervenors have the same goal, but have different strategies for getting there.

“The end objective here is to defend the constitutionality of the Life of the Human Right Act,” Jerde told the courtroom. 

Rodriguez-Williams said she was disappointed by the judge’s decision to deny her group and that this ban is what Wyomingites want. 

Chelsea’s Fund’s Christine Lichtenfels (middle) and OB-GYN Giovannina Anthony (right) are two of the plaintiffs suing the state to keep abortion legal in Wyoming. (BRADLY J. BONER/JACKSON HOLE NEWS&GUIDE, POOL)

“My role is to carry out the will of the people, the desire of the people,” she said after the hearing. “We’re basically carrying out what the Dobbs decision gave us the authority to do.”

What’s next

Jackson OB-GYN Giovannina Anthony, one of the state’s few abortion providers, is one of the people suing to protect reproductive rights. She was happy with Friday’s decision but said there’s still a long road ahead.

“It’s just step by step,” Anthony said. “This is just one more step along the way, and so I’m not focused on any one outcome. I just hope we can make an appropriate case and make our arguments effectively and hope that the [Wyoming] Supreme Court agrees.” 

The state’s highest court could have the ultimate say on the future of reproductive rights. 

Later this month, the Teton County court will consider blocking another ban on medical abortions. That law is currently slated to go into effect on July 1. 

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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