CHEYENNE — A group composed of the state’s county and district attorneys has raised concerns about the Wyoming State Bar’s formal charge against Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove.
In a statement to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorneys Association said the “scope and tenor” of the charge raises concerns about the potential precedent such a charge could set – particularly when it comes to prosecutorial discretion.
Washakie County Attorney John Worrall, the association’s president, said it was the only public statement the association had issued, to his knowledge. A supermajority voted to make the public statement, Worrall said, as required by the group’s bylaws.
While the group’s membership also includes deputy prosecuting attorneys, its voting body consists of the state’s 23 county attorneys and two district attorneys.
The formal charge against Manlove was filed in June with the State Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility by Special Bar Counsel W.W. Reeves. Reeves wrote that the Bar’s Review and Oversight Committee found probable cause to bring the charge against Manlove for multiple professional conduct violations throughout her tenure, which began in January 2019.
The Bar said one of the investigations into Manlove’s conduct was prompted by an “unprecedented” letter signed by all of Laramie County’s district and circuit court judges. In the letter, the seven judges alleged that Manlove had mishandled both her office’s personnel and caseload, having a negative impact on the office’s ability to provide adequate representation for Laramie County residents.
In its statement, the WCPAA argues that dispute about what is “appropriate and reasonable” when it comes to prosecutorial discretion has typically been limited to voters when they’re deciding whether to re-elect a particular attorney, or to the governor during removal proceedings – adding that “only in circumstances that are extreme is discretion considered to be abused.”
“Absent any direct comment about the complaint or any particular case, the WCPAA notes that it is the prerogative of the executive branch (the prosecutor) exclusively to enforce the law and the role of the judicial branch to interpret the law,” the statement reads.
The group also makes clear elsewhere in the statement that it is not taking a position “as to the merit or issues raised by the BPR’s complaint.”
“This complaint at least implies that each and every prosecutor within the state of Wyoming has cause for concern in the exercise of that discretion if the mere performance of one’s duties could lead to censure or disbarment if the judiciary disagrees with the prosecutor’s choices, even when such performance is well within the existing constraints on the reasonable exercise of discretion,” the statement continues.
In this case, the WCPAA says, the formal charge is not clear or specific enough in pointing to which Rules of Professional Conduct Manlove allegedly violated. The statement calls the complaint “repetitive” and “inclusive of generally inflammatory and conclusory statements.”
Worrall pointed to Rule 13 within the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, which says, in part, that a formal charge “shall set forth clearly and with particularity the grounds for discipline with which the respondent is charged and the conduct of the respondent which gave rise to those charges.”
The Bar’s charge against Manlove did not do that, the association argues.
Because of the public nature of the allegations, and because such a disciplinary hearing could potentially lead to an attorney losing her law license, due process is at issue, the group says.
Government officials, including prosecutors, generally have sovereign immunity that protects them from financial liability should someone become unhappy with how they do their job. But that doesn’t protect attorneys from discipline by the State Bar, the statement says.
“Any attorney faces the loss of livelihood and clientele from these types of proceedings, but an elected prosecutor faces not only censure and disbarment, but loss of their elected position, without one ballot being cast,” it continues.
State Bar counsel Mark Gifford declined to comment on the WCPAA’s statement.
Manlove, through her attorney, Stephen Melchior, filed her formal response to the State Bar charge on July 20. She largely denied the allegations against her, including that her alleged behavior violated any of the Rules of Professional Conduct described in the charge.
In the response, Manlove defended her exercise of prosecutorial discretion, denying an allegation that she’d dismissed an excessive number of cases. These cases had been signed off on by Laramie County judges, she said, and further, all were dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning her office could recharge them in the future.
Manlove and Melchior wrote that there was no evidence in the judges’ letter or the charge that “contain facts sufficient to second-guess (Manlove’s) exercise of her considerable prosecutorial discretion,” adding that the way the Office of Bar Counsel and the Laramie County judges supported their opinions about how she responded to 2020 state budget constraints raises “significant separation of powers and due process concerns.”
The State Bar charge alleges that it was not state budget cuts that caused caseload constraints, but Manlove’s conduct within her office that prompted many staff attorneys and other employees to resign.
In her response, Manlove points out that the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office’s caseload had “increased significantly,” while the number of state-funded attorneys available stayed the same, and staff positions decreased by two.
Manlove denied in her response that resignations within her office “left too few employees to meet the obligations of the office,” saying that “all obligations of the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office have been reasonably met by its attorneys and support staff, and that if the citizens of Laramie County believe otherwise,” they can elect someone else.
A disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 2-11 and will be held in front of a three-person panel chosen from the full Board of Professional Responsibility, according to Board of Professional Responsibility clerk Brandi Robinson. The location of the hearing has yet to be determined.