CASPER, Wyo. — State schools chief Cindy Hill said Tuesday she would return to work at the Wyoming Department of Education following a state Supreme Court decision declaring unconstitutional the law that stripped her of much of her power last year.
The justices ruled 3-2 in favor of Hill, who filed suit against the state the day Gov. Matt Mead signed Senate File 104 into law nearly a year ago. The case heads now for further proceedings in Laramie County District Court, where Hill initially filed suit.
Mead has asked the attorney general to break down the legal and practical implications of the 82-page ruling, which offers little guidance on how to correct the unconstitutional law.
"We understand there will be no changes in the current structure at the Department of Education until the District Court has officially received the Supreme Court decision and further proceedings occur," Mead said in a release. "The attorney general will evaluate the opinion and provide options.”
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael said the Supreme Court decision is not effective immediately. Such a decision is final, he said, unless the court agrees to hear a motion for rehearing.
Michael declined to say whether the state intends to file for rehearing to potentially reverse the decision.
Hill seemed eager to get back to work at the agency Tuesday.
She called Senate File 104 a "misguided and unfortunate mistake" during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
"But now it is time to return to work and focus on the children of Wyoming," Hill said. "I will be returning to the Department of Education and will be resuming my constitutional and statutory duties."
She said in a release Tuesday she plans to meet with her advisers to see how soon the ruling can be implemented.
Hill and her staff developed a transition plan in anticipation of the ruling, which Hill called "an opinion of the ages."
The first step is to create a transition team involving the attorney general's office and other state agencies that work with the superintendent and the Department of Education, according to John Masters, an attorney for the Office of the Superintendent.
Masters said it will be the governor's task to deal with the current department director, Richard Crandall, whom Mead picked to fill the supervisory role created by Senate File 104.
"I don't see a role for a director," Masters said. "A director was part of SF 104."
Crandall knew when he accepted his position that the Supreme Court might reverse the law that created his job, he said during a press conference Tuesday. Crandall started as director of the Wyoming Department of Education in August.
He said he called the two nutritional service companies he co-owns in Arizona, where he was formerly a state senator, to say he may no longer be "the silent board member." He canceled his plans to join a contingent of Wyoming educators on a visit to schools using competency-based learning in Arizona this week to open his doors to employees who want to talk, he said.
"We're trying to have business as usual, but that's an extremely difficult position to be in," Crandall said of his department. "Awkward with a capital 'A,' is what kind of position it is here."
Crandall said he has no regrets about coming to Wyoming.
Had Crandall known he would only be in the job for six months, he said, "I still would have taken it."
Though saying he could not speak for the committee as a whole, Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, said the Supreme Court's decision is not likely to deter the work of a special House committee investigating alleged wrongdoing during Hill's two years at the Wyoming Department of Education. The investigation, a potential first step toward Hill's impeachment, was recently put on hold until after the legislative budget session concludes in March.
Committee chairman and Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, declined to comment on the state of the investigation Tuesday.
Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said it was unlikely a constitutional amendment to alter the office of the superintendent would pass in the upcoming budget session.
"Is that going to happen? Not likely," Brown said.
A constitutional amendment was tried in 2012 and failed. The hurdles for lawmakers proposing another amendment are too high, Brown said.
But Brown said the court's "razor-thin" margin suggests the ruling was a difficult one for the Supreme Court justices.
"If the state comes in and would petition for a rehearing, why, I think there would be serious consideration to that," Brown said.
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he was surprised to hear the law had been deemed unconstitutional. Landen, who voted for Senate File 104, said it wasn't the first time he disagreed with a court decision.
"We knew all along that there were differing opinions," Landen said. "I hope that this won't dismantle the work that we've been doing to put that department back together again."
Hill still intends to run for governor, not for a second term as superintendent, she told the Star-Tribune Tuesday.
She announced her bid for governor in January of last year, days after Senate File 104 passed the Legislature. She filed documents with the Wyoming Secretary of State's Office several weeks later to start a political campaign and raise money.
Hill launched her gubernatorial campaign in Newcastle on Jan. 8.
Rep. Stephen Watt, R-Rock Springs, ordered the nonpartisan Legislative Service Office staff to draft a bill to repeal Senate File 104 last week. As of Tuesday, the proposed bill was not publicly available on the Wyoming Legislature’s website. The Supreme Court ruling could make the bill unnecessary.
When contacted by the Star-Tribune Tuesday, Watt said he had not read the ruling and could not say what he will do with his proposed bill.
A small group of Hill supporters staged an impromptu rally in front of the Capitol in Cheyenne upon hearing news of the Supreme Court decision Tuesday morning.
They waved American flags while a stereo system blared Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American."
"We've won a great victory here," William Bennett, of Cheyenne, said. "The rights of the citizens of Wyoming has just been respected."
Hill supporter Maureen Hurley said she is raising two great-grandchildren and is concerned about the school system in Cheyenne.
"With Cindy at the helm again I think things will be okay," she said. "She is a very, very strong lady."
M. Lee Hasenauer, a Laramie County commissioner and Tea Party organizer, turned in the direction of the nearby Wyoming Department of Education while standing before the Capitol Tuesday morning.
"Get out of Cindy's house," he said.
Casper Star-Tribune reporters Joan Barron and Laura Hancock contributed to the reporting in this story.