All three Fremont County lawmakers who sit on the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee offered feedback earlier this year about the interim topics the group should study before the next legislative session.
The first to weigh in during the interim topics meeting was Wyoming Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, who asked the committee to examine the need for more rural attorneys in the state.
“It really is a problem,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people to do the work, and they come and go pretty fast. We need to retain them – keep them in the neighborhood if we can.”
State court administrator Elisa Butler agreed that Wyoming is currently experiencing “a lot of turnover (among) attorneys who practice in rural areas.”
“(It’s) becoming a major problem,” she told the committee. “Attorneys who practice in those areas are wanting to retire, and there are no attorneys coming in to replace them.”
The issue has impacts “all the way up” the judicial ladder, she added, explaining that, “(if) you don’t have attorneys in those areas, it’s very hard to find judges in those areas as well.”
Other states have considered “providing incentives for new attorneys to go to these rural areas to practice,” Butler said, and the strategy “does seem to work,” because “once you get somebody invested (in) a rural community … they generally stay – they form relationships, they form a client base.”
If the Judiciary Committee decides to study the topic, Butler suggested they “look at whether or not a program like that would be effective in Wyoming.”
Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, proposed an interim topic he has worked on before: revising burglary statutes.
Under current law, Case explained, someone who reaches through an open car window and steals a wallet off the dashboard can be charged with a felony and sentenced to 10 years in prison, because the crime “technically meets the definition of burglary as the courts have worked it through.”
The same is true for someone who steals a lawnmower from a backyard shed, he said, since “the courts have ruled that’s an occupied structure.”
Most prosecutors say “they would never” pursue a felony charge in those kinds of cases, Case acknowledged, but “there is no protection here (from) the opportunity to really hold a hammer on a defendant with a felony.”
“I hope we will discuss it,” he said. “I think it would be a very straightforward topic.”
Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, who is a prosecutor for the Fremont County Attorney’s Office, didn’t think Case’s proposal to explore “misdemeanor burglary” statutes represented the “fix (he) thinks it is,” but she also said, “I personally don’t mind the discussion.”
Oakley did take issue with proposed interim topics that the committee has already discussed in recent years, however, like parental rights and medicinal cannabis legalization.
“They’ve been vetted, (and) they can be brought as personal bills,” she said. “I think we need to put our time and efforts (into) a topic we haven’t seen before.”
Later, Oakley suggested expanding the scope of two interim topic proposals that were discussed during the meeting.
The first was about funding for public defenders – a topic Oakley said she “would like to” pair with an examination of funding for county attorneys in Wyoming.
“Public defender funding continues to grow, and there’s a growing disparity between what the state pays public defenders and what your average county attorney is making,” she said.
Next, when the committee talked about studying legal requirements for death reporting, Oakley said they should also take on “some other reviews of coroner statutes that would be in order.”
She specifically mentioned “inquest statutes still on the books that are from a very long time ago.”
“I think they’re antiquated, and I think they’re fraught with due process issues,” she said.
Case said he has heard “concerns from the press that it’s very difficult to get information about death,” especially when fatal incidents occur on the Wind River Reservation.
“There’s a right-to-know, open meetings, transparency piece of this too,” he said. “I’d like to hear the coroner’s side of this, but I’m not opposed to going into this set of statutes.”
Earlier in the meeting, Case also asked the committee to consider studying four areas of the legal system “where women clients get the short of the stick … over and over,” including domestic violence proceedings, recognition of common-law marriage, child support laws, and stalking statutes.
“This came from a practitioner in my county (who) says that women are getting hammered in these proceedings,” Case said. “These are really important situations where women are disadvantaged.”
The Judiciary Committee’s next meeting will be held April 24-25 in Sheridan.