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Williams v. State ex rel University of Wyoming Board of Trustees

Supreme Court of Wyoming

September 4, 2019

LYLE L. WILLIAMS, Appellant (Plaintiff),

          Appeal from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable Tori R.A. Kricken, Judge.

         Representing Appellant:

          Jason M. Tangeman, Nicholas & Tangeman, LLC, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Tangeman.

         Representing Appellee:

          Bruce A. Salzburg and Kara L. Ellsbury, Hirst Applegate, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Salzburg.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          FOX, Justice.

         [¶1] Lyle Williams brought a handgun to the Wyoming Republican Convention at a University of Wyoming (UW) facility, despite a UW regulation barring firearms on the UW campus. He was cited for misdemeanor criminal trespass after he refused to either relinquish his handgun or leave campus. Mr. Williams pleaded not guilty in circuit court, and then obtained a stay of the circuit court criminal proceedings while he filed an action for declaratory judgment in district court. He contended that the regulation violated his right to bear arms under the United States and Wyoming constitutions; and that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-8-401 (LexisNexis 2017) was not a part of the Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act and, thus, preempted the UW regulation prohibiting firearms on campus. A favorable declaration from the district court, or a favorable decision from this Court, would resolve the matter pending in circuit court. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of UW. We reverse with instructions to dismiss so that the matter may proceed where it originated, in the circuit court.


         [¶2] We decide the following issues, one of which is dispositive:

1. Did Mr. Williams have standing to challenge the legality of University of Wyoming Regulation 2-178?
2. Did the district court correctly conclude that Mr. Williams' declaratory judgment action served a useful purpose?


         [¶3] Lyle Williams was openly carrying his Massachusetts-manufactured Kahr 9 mm semi-automatic pistol when he attended the Wyoming Republican Convention at the UW Conference Center in April 2018. University police approached Mr. Williams and asked him to relinquish his weapon pursuant to UW Regulation 2-178(VI)(D), which states:

No dangerous weapon may be stored or carried in or upon University facilities. Any person carrying a dangerous weapon in a University facility is required to relinquish the weapon to the UW Police Department voluntarily or upon request. The weapon will be returned when the person leaves the University facility, unless the UW Police Department determines that the weapon should be retained in an investigation. If a person carrying a dangerous weapon refuses to relinquish the weapon, the person shall be denied access to University facilities. Nothing in this paragraph prevents the carrying of weapons for the following reasons: (1) by authorized Peace Officers as defined and authorized by Wyoming Statutes; (2) by individuals directly transporting weapons to and from the weapons storage facility; or (3) pursuant to official University business and University-approved activities, including activities conducted by ROTC cadets under the direct and immediate supervision of ROTC faculty members, activities conducted by registered student organizations with the written permission of the Vice President for Student Affairs; and other University activities with the written permission of the responsible vice president. University students, faculty, and staff may be subject to disciplinary action for violation of this paragraph, up to and including termination. All persons violating this paragraph may also be subject to criminal sanctions in accordance with Wyoming law.

         Mr. Williams refused to relinquish his weapon and refused to leave campus when asked. University Police cited him for misdemeanor criminal trespass under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-3-303 (LexisNexis 2017).

         [¶4] Mr. Williams pleaded not guilty in Albany County circuit court. He argued "that he had a legal right to enter and remain on the University of Wyoming premises and that any order to vacate or depart said public premises pursuant to UW Regulation 2-178 [] was unlawful and unconstitutional." Mr. Williams requested a stay, which the circuit court granted, and Mr. Williams filed a complaint for declaratory judgment against UW in district court, seeking a declaration that: 1) "Wyoming Statute § 6-8-401 preempts UW Regulation 2-178 [] in so far as it relates to 'firearms' and 'ammunition'"; 2) "UW Regulation 2-178 [] is not lawful or enforceable in so far as it relates to 'firearms' and 'ammunition' as defined by W.S. § 6-8-403"; and 3) "UW Regulation 2-178 [] in so far as [it relates] to 'firearms' and 'ammunition' . . . is unconstitutional pursuant to the Federal and Wyoming Constitutions." He asserted that "A determination by the District Court that UW Regulation 2-178 as applied to 'firearms' and 'ammunition' is unlawful and unconstitutional will finally and completely resolve Mr. Williams' [circuit court] criminal prosecution."

         [¶5] The parties filed a joint stipulation of facts and cross-motions for summary judgment, and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of UW. Two of the district court's holdings are relevant to this decision. First, it held that the declaratory judgment action could be maintained in district court because Mr. Williams did not have "the ability to challenge the validity of UW Regulation 2-178 and/or Wyoming Statute § 6-8-401 in the Circuit Court." It initially held that Mr. Williams had standing to challenge "the legality of UW Regulation 2-178 vis-à-vis Wyoming Statute § 6-8-401" because the criminal trespass charge against Mr. Williams was a direct result of UW Regulation 2-178. However, after concluding that the Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 6-8-401 through 6-8-406 (WFFA), did not preempt UW's regulation of firearms manufactured outside of Wyoming, it reconsidered whether Mr. Williams had standing. It reasoned that, since Mr. Williams' firearm was manufactured outside of Wyoming, the WFFA did not apply to him and, thus, that he did "not have a tangible interest that has been harmed." Nevertheless, the court concluded he retained standing to challenge UW Regulation 2-178 because of "the relaxed standing requirements" that apply in matters of great public importance.


         I. Mr. Williams has standing to challenge the legality of University of Wyoming Regulation 2-178 because of the pending criminal charge against him

         [¶6] In their joint stipulation of facts, the parties agreed there was "an existing, genuine and justiciable controversy before the Court" because of the criminal trespass charge against Mr. Williams. The district court held that, although Mr. Williams lacked standing because the WFFA only preempts regulation of firearms manufactured in Wyoming, "relaxed standing requirements [were] appropriate" because Mr. Williams had "raised a matter of great public importance."

         [¶7] Neither of the parties raised the issue of standing on appeal. However, because standing is a "vital jurisprudential" rule, a "court may still, and should, raise standing issues sua sponte when the parties do not." In re L-MHB, 2018 WY 140, ¶ 24, 431 P.3d 560, 568 (Wyo. 2018) (citing Osborn v. Emporium Videos, 848 P.2d 237, 241-42 (Wyo. 1993)); see also Bird v. Lampert, 2019 WY 56, ¶ 7, 441 P.3d 850, 854 (Wyo. 2019) ("Lack of standing may be raised at any time, including by the court sua sponte."). The existence of standing is a question of law we review de novo. Id. at ¶ 7, 441 P.3d at 853-54 (citing In re L-MHB, 2018 WY 140, ¶ 24, 431 P.3d at 568; Ultra Res., Inc. v. Hartman, 2010 WY 36, ¶ 50, 226 P.3d 889, 911 (Wyo. 2010)). Thus, we afford no deference to the parties' stipulation that this case presented "an existing, genuine and justiciable controversy."

         [¶8] We adopted a four-part test for standing in Brimmer v. Thomson, 521 P.2d 574, 578 (Wyo. 1974):

First, a justiciable controversy requires parties having existing and genuine, as distinguished from theoretical, rights or interests. Second, the controversy must be one upon which the judgment of the court may effectively operate, as distinguished from a debate or argument evoking a purely political, administrative, philosophical or academic conclusion. Third, it must be a controversy the judicial determination of which will have the force and effect of a final judgment in law or decree in equity upon the rights, status or other legal relationships of one or more of the real parties in interest, or, wanting these qualities be of such great and overriding public moment as to constitute the legal equivalent of all of them. Finally, the proceedings must be genuinely adversary in character and not a mere disputation, but advanced with sufficient militancy to engender a thorough research and analysis of the major issues. Any controversy lacking these elements becomes an exercise in academics and is not properly before the courts for solution.

         [¶9] Here, Mr. Williams has an existing or genuine right at stake because of his pending criminal prosecution in circuit court. See Heilig v. Wyo. Game & Fish Comm'n, 2003 WY 27, ¶ 9, 64 P.3d 734, 738 (Wyo. 2003) (concluding appellant facing criminal charges in circuit court was "adversely affected in fact" by Game & Fish rules because he was criminally cited and prosecuted in circuit court for violating those rules and, thus, had standing in parallel declaratory judgment action). Further, a declaratory judgment from the district court "may effectively operate" on Mr. Williams' rights and affect his "rights, status or other legal relationships" because a declaration concerning the enforceability of UW Regulation 2-178 would directly affect the outcome of the pending circuit court charge. Finally, there is no doubt that these proceedings are genuinely adverse because "[i]t is clear from the briefing, both in the district court and on appeal, that the parties have advanced their positions 'with sufficient militancy to engender a thorough research and analysis of the major issues.'" Allred v. Bebout, 2018 WY 8, ¶ 54, 409 P.3d 260, 276 (Wyo. 2018) (quoting Brimmer, 521 P.2d at 578). This controversy satisfies the Brimmer test.

         [¶10] The district court mistakenly based its standing analysis on the question of whether the WFFA applies to Mr. Williams' firearm, which was not manufactured in Wyoming. But the injury in this case does not arise from the WFFA. Rather, it arises from Mr. Williams' criminal prosecution under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-3-303 and the UW regulation. Although application of the WFFA was certainly relevant to the outcome of that prosecution, the district court's conclusion that the WFFA only applies to Wyoming-manufactured firearms did not divest Mr. Williams of standing. Instead, that conclusion concerned the merits of arguments advanced by the parties in an effort to resolve the underlying criminal charge. We find that Mr. Williams has standing to file his declaratory judgment action because he is adversely affected by the criminal charge against him and the underlying UW regulation, not, as the district court found, because he raises a matter of "great public importance." See Allred, 2018 WY 8, ¶¶ 40, 58, 409 P.3d at 271, 277 ("we have retreated from [] liberal application of the public interest factor . . . and continue to require parties to assert enough of a stake in the outcome to permit the judiciary to exercise jurisdiction over a case without exceeding its authority and violating separation of powers limitations.").

         II. The district court abused its discretion when it concluded that Mr. Williams' declaratory ...

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