CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming secretary of state filed a lawsuit as a private citizen Thursday challenging a law that sets term limits for statewide elected officials.
Max Maxfield, now in his second four-year term, announced the lawsuit at the state Capitol. He said he is footing the legal bills himself.
"I believe our term limit law is unconstitutional, and as Wyoming's chief election officer, it is my duty to take action to correct it," Maxfield said. "I don't believe my decision to seek election, re-election, or that of candidates who follow me should be influenced by an unconstitutional statute."
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the term limits law was unconstitutional in regard to state legislators. The ruling came in response to a legal challenge by two state lawmakers.
Brad Cave, Maxfield's lawyer, said the state Supreme Court ruled that because qualifications for state offices are spelled out in the Wyoming Constitution, the requirements can only be changed by constitutional amendment, not state statute.
However, the 2004 court ruling didn't address the legitimacy of imposing term limits on statewide elected officials because none of them joined the case. As a result, the law purporting to set term limits for the state's five statewide elected officials, including the governor and secretary of state, has remained in place.
"This statute on the books has existed as sort of a cloud over the electoral process in Wyoming," Cave said. "It comes up every election season when somebody who has been in one of these offices for two terms is considered or is discussed as whether they'll run for a third term."
The issue last arose when former Gov. Dave Freudenthal initially kept quiet about whether he would try to overturn the law to seek a third term. He announced in March 2010 that he wouldn't seek re-election but said he hadn't been worried about the prospect of successfully challenging the law if he had wanted to.
Gov. Matt Mead said he doesn't believe term limits are appropriate for legislators because they make a big sacrifice to serve and their experience benefits the state.
"I do believe term limits are appropriate for the top five elected officials," Mead said. "However, there is a legal question regarding the constitutionality of term limits that Secretary Maxfield feels needs to be answered by our Wyoming Supreme Court."
Jack Adsit of Sheridan led the initiative for term limits that voters approved in 1992.
Adsit expects the state Supreme Court to overturn the law in regard to statewide elected officials. But he said Maxfield should consider respecting the will of the voters who approved it.
Letting elected officials serve too long results in a seniority system that's contrary to what the country's founders envisioned, Adsit said.
Maxfield said he hasn't decided if he will seek a third term as secretary of state if he's successful in his legal challenge. He said he's bringing up the issue now to make sure there's plenty of time to resolve the issue before the next election.
"I filed the suit privately as an injured party who is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election to the office of secretary of state," Maxfield said.
Maxfield said it would fall to the Wyoming Attorney General's Office to defend the statute. He said if the voters still want term limits, they can amend the state constitution.
The lawsuit has been assigned to District Judge Thomas Campbell in Cheyenne. It will be up to Campbell to hear the case and rule on it, or to send it straight to the state Supreme Court for action, Cave said.