Mountain States Legal Foundation battling Native American voting rights

Do Philip Anschutz and the Coors family really care how county commissioners are elected in Fremont County, Wyoming? Hard to say, but they are helping to bankroll a non-profit Lakewood law firm that seems to care a great deal.

Fremont County, Wyoming is home to the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation, home to about 7500 Native Americans out of a total county population of less than 40,000 people. Until recently no Indian had ever been elected to the county’s five-person board of commissioners.

Fremont County Commissioners Dennis Heckart, Doug Thompson, Keja Whiteman, Pat Hickerson and Dennis Christensen

How could that be? Simple–all five seats were at-large ensuring a white majority of voters in each election.

One Indian was finally elected under that system in 2006. Just before Keja Whiteman was elected, five individual Indians filed suit to force the county to create five individual geographic districts, with one of them centered on the reservation.

The county could have just agreed to do it, but instead fought the suit, bringing in Lakewood’s Mountain States Legal Foundation as counsel for the county.

According to The Washington Post, MSLF, a non-profit public interest law firm, is representing the county at no cost.

Why? We called the MSLF and were told attorney J. Scott Detamore, who is handling the case, would call back. So far, he hasn’t.

In past years, both Gale Norton and James Watt have worked at MSLF.

From the Post’s Associated Press story:

WIND RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Wyo. — The Mountain States Legal Foundation has built a reputation as an influential behind-the-scenes player over the years on conservative legal causes.

It has waged battles against affirmative action and protections for endangered species while being bankrolled by some of the most powerful families in the West.

The group is now fighting a protracted legal battle with American Indians who believe the organization is trampling on their voting rights in a rural Wyoming county.

At issue is a local dispute over the election of county commissioners in Fremont County. Mountain States Legal Foundation has been representing the county pro bono for the last five years in a fight against American Indians who want greater representation on the commission.

That Mountain States has waded into such a local dispute further demonstrates the clout it seeks to wield in Western legal disputes, in this case arguing first that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t apply to Indians in Fremont County. Failing at that, it’s now arguing on appeal that a federal judge can’t order the county to create separate commission districts.

Federal tax records show that the organization’s supporters in recent years have included foundations controlled by the Coors brewing family in Colorado and Philip F. Anschutz, a reclusive Denver billionaire with extensive holdings in railroads, energy and communications.

Planitiffs won the first go-round, with a judge ruling that the county needed to create five distinct districts, including one centered on the reservation.

You might think it would end there, but no. The county, with the help of MSLF is appealing that decision. The county has agreed to one district centered on the reservation, but wants to keep the other four seats at-large.

The judge in the case rejected that proposal, saying, according to The Post, that it perpetuates isolation of Indians.

The Colorado Independent spoke with Whiteman today. She reiterated the judge’s remarks.

“The county tried to throw the Indians a bone by creating a district for us, but we don’t want to be singled out for one district with boundaries when the rest of the seats are at-large,” she said.

She is the only Democrat on the board. She said she was able to become the first Indian commissioner on the board by “campaigning really hard.” She said her education and employment background made her well-qualified and notes that she finished second in a race to fill three seat in 2006

Asked why all four of the other commissioners voted to appeal the judge’s decision, she laughed, saying it seems to be “personal or political.

“I don’t want to continue with this dispute. I want to be done with it. I am ready to be done with the legal battle,” she said.

“I’m bewildered by this, really,” she said.

As to why Mountain States is involved at all, she said she didn’t know, but noted that MSLF seems to be involved in similar cases from time to time.

“It’s not the first time Mountain States has been involved in cases like this. Whenever someone has an issue with Indians, they seem to be there, coming to the aid of whoever has a dispute with Indians,” she said.

The ACLU is representing plaintiffs in the case. Wyoming ACLU director Linda Burt said she has no idea why Mountain States has spent so much time and money on this case.

“I don’t know why this would be an issue that would be of interest to them,” she said.

Attorney Laughlin McDonald, of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, in Atlanta, has been the ACLU attorney on the case. He told The Independent that he doesn’t think the county has much of a case in the appeal.

He said the judge was very clear that there was a history of discrimination in the county, and that the compromise suggested by the county of one district for Indians and one at-large district shared by the other four commissioners is against state law, which says you can have at-large voting or districts, but not a combination. “There is no basis for the county’s appeal,” he said.

“They are just trying to keep as much power in the hands of whites as they can,” he said.

He said Whiteman was elected after the ACLU case was filed. “I think they (white voters) thought if they elected an Indian, this problem would go away, but that doesn’t erase decades of discrimination,” he said.

None of the four Republican commissioners who voted to appeal the latest ruling could be reached by phone today. The Wyoming director of elections also did not return a call.

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Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.