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.
Plaintiff Patricia Bergie of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Council accuses Mountain States of "trying to make sure that our voice isn't heard, and trying to make sure that we don't have any weight in the county."
But Diemer True, a former Mountain States director, Casper oilman and a former Republican National Committee member, said the firm seeks only a level playing field and is "very concerned about equal rights, not minority rights."
Aside from its work in Voting Rights Act cases, Mountain States commonly sides with private landowners against the federal government in property disputes. It frequently fights federal proposals to protect more animals through the Endangered Species Act.
Mountain States also has won landmark U.S. Supreme Court victories curtailing the use of affirmative action in awarding government contracts and setting limits on how government agencies can consider race in laying off employees.
Mountain States' contract with Fremont County specified that it would challenge the constitutionality of a section of the Voting Rights Act — a landmark of the civil rights movement — that prohibits discrimination by race, color or language. Mountain States argued the act didn't apply because the federal government hadn't previously found voting discrimination in Fremont County.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson in Cheyenne rejected Mountain States' constitutional challenge in 2007. He said the firm failed to disclose that other federal courts had rejected similar minority voting rights arguments it made in cases in Montana and Colorado.
In April, Johnson ruled for the plaintiffs on the rest of the case. He ordered Fremont County to establish five commission districts, including one centered on the reservation that would virtually guarantee the election of an Indian commissioner.
Fremont County then proposed a single voting district for Indians, with at-large voting for the rest of the county. Johnson rejected the hybrid plan this summer, saying it would perpetuate isolation of Indians. The county appealed in September to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, arguing for its hybrid plan — even though the Indians argue that Wyoming state law forbids such schemes.
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