Maintaining stability in the Secretary of State’s office played a role in Gov. Mark Gordon’s decision to choose a different candidate over Secretary of State Ed Buchanan for a judgeship, Gordon said at a press conference Thursday.

“That office has gone through a couple of changes fairly recently,” Gordon said. Had Gordon chosen Buchanan, the governor would have had to select a new secretary of state from a pool of three names submitted by the Wyoming Republican Party.

Gordon instead chose Nathaniel Hibben, a Torrington attorney working in private practice and as a municipal judge. Hibben has been a public defender and also served as a prosecutor in Goshen County, according to the governor’s announcement of the decision.

In late May, Buchanan’s name emerged as one of three candidates for an open circuit court judgeship in Goshen County, where Buchanan previously lived and practiced law. His move for the judgeship came just seven months after voters elected him to serve as the secretary of state.

There was no memorable precedent for someone elected to statewide office seeking to move to a judge’s bench, the director of the Wyoming Bar Association and a longtime political observer both told WyoFile.

“I can’t find anybody who can remember anything like it,” said Joan Barron, a former longtime statehouse correspondent and current Casper Star-Tribune political columnist. “It’s just extraordinary.”

Had Gordon given him the judgeship, it would have been Buchanan’s second appointment to public office in fewer than two years, and place the second unelected appointee in the secretary of state’s office in the same period.

Buchanan was appointed to that office in February 2018 after former Secretary of State Ed Murray resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct. After his appointment Buchanan ran successfully for the position last fall.

Buchanan advised Gordon of his intention to apply for the judgeship before making the application, Gordon said. “[Buchanan] basically said ‘what would you do?’” Gordon said, adding he told the secretary he’d give his application “full consideration.” Part of his consideration was keeping his executive team intact, Gordon said.

In an interview Friday morning, Buchanan said before applying for the judgeship he asked Gordon if his application would put the governor in an “awkward position” given that they worked together on the State Land and Investment Board.

“I wouldn’t have applied if he’d said it would be awkward,” Buchanan said. This was the third time he’s been in the top three spots for a seat on the bench. “Practicing law has been my vocation,” he said.

When Murray resigned, Buchanan spoke with outgoing Judge Randal Arp, Buchanan said, and inquired whether the judge would be retiring soon.

“Had [Arp] told me in February of 2018 that he was going to retire I would have never put in for secretary of state,” Buchanan said. When the judgeship did become open, Buchanan decided to apply despite his recent election. “I didn’t want to have any regrets and now I don’t,” he said.

Gordon “really agonized over the decision,” Buchanan said, and the secretary of state recognized the interest in stability in the executive team.  

“We have a great executive team,” Buchanan said, “we really work well together.”

Buchanan also complimented Hibben, Gordon’s selection for the bench.

“Goshen County is getting a great circuit court judge,” he said. “That’s another reason I’m not as disappointed as people think.”

Salaries at question?

Had Gordon picked Buchanan as judge, the change in position would have come with a pay increase. The secretary of state earns $92,000 a year according to statute. When a new law passed by the Legislature goes into effect on July 1, a circuit court judge will earn $145,000 a year.

The salaries for the five statewide elected officials have not been increased since 2002, according to the Legislative Service Office. That’s too long without a change, said House Revenue Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who brought a failed attempt to increase the salaries in the 2017 legislative session. The salaries do not change with inflation and have to be increased by lawmakers.

In her column on June 1, Barron suggested Murray’s move for the judgeship raised questions about whether lawmakers needed to reconsider raises.

“Perhaps the Legislature should get serious about increasing the salaries of the top five [elected officials] when an experienced official like Buchanan leaves a nice safe top job for a different branch of government,” she wrote.

But Buchanan said the extra $53,000 a year was not a chief consideration for him. He applied for his previous judgeships before the Legislature raised the salaries, he said.

“We all have bills to pay and kids to put through college but [pay] really wasn’t a primary or even a secondary issue,” Buchanan said. “More just like icing on the cake.”

Appointing replacement a risk, not advantage

Though appointing a new secretary of state could be an opportunity for Gordon to install someone beholden to him to the executive branch, it also carries risks, observers said. That’s because Gordon would be limited to choosing from three names selected by the Wyoming Republican Party.

“You don’t know who you’re going to get,” Barron said in an interview. “I understand why Gordon would want to pick someone else,” for the judge’s spot.

In the past, the State Central Committee of the Wyoming Republican Party has sent two unlikely candidates to the governor and a more qualified one, guaranteeing the pick, said Zwonitzer. The party’s leadership is also dominated by conservatives now, including some that opposed Gordon’s gubernatorial bid, Zwonitzer said.

“There’s no good political reason why the governor would want to chance three names coming at him from the state party,” he said.

Buchanan has been Speaker of the House and ran for Secretary of State in 2014, losing to Murray in the primary by fewer than 2,000 votes. He ran again last fall, though he faced an easier campaign as an incumbent Republican.

Buchanan’s campaigning, Zwonitzer said, is a valuable asset for someone who makes decisions that affect all Wyoming. He makes those decisions both from the Secretary of State’s office and as a voting member of the State Land and Investment Board, which allots state money for community projects and makes statewide land decisions.  

“You want somebody in that job who has done the campaigning, who has traveled the state and who knows the issues,” Zwonitzer said. “That’s really tough in the appointment process to find somebody who knows the issues to that depth.”

Zwonitzer said he understood Buchanan’s decision to apply, if a judgeship in Goshen County was a goal. “This was honestly Buchanan’s only real shot at getting a judgeship in his home community,” Zwonitzer said. Both district court and circuit court benches were recently filled.

As for Gordon now having a malcontented secretary of state — Buchanan made no suggestion in an interview with WyoFile that he was upset at Gordon for not selecting him. Gordon’s desire to keep Buchanan on the executive branch was in fact “a giant compliment,” the secretary said.

He was excited to continue initiatives he’d begun in his elected position, Buchanan said. He named the acquisition of new voting equipment for counties, easing business registration in the state and pursuing the possibility of Wind River Indian Reservation residents registering to vote with tribal identification cards as priorities.

Zwonitzer also brushed off the risk of hard feelings. Of Buchanan, Zwonitzer said, “he is a stand-up guy… He understands the governor had to make a choice.”

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