In a lawsuit that received international attention, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson dismissed a complaint last month against Kappa Kappa Gamma and the first openly transgender woman to join a sorority at the University of Wyoming. 

Six members of the sorority had asked the judge to void Artemis Langford’s membership and to define “woman” to exclude transgender members in the future, among other things. However, Johnson ruled that the court cannot interfere with how the sorority determines its membership since it is a private, voluntary organization. 

Artemis Langford poses for a portrait in August 2023. (WyoFile/Niki Chan Wylie)

In the aftermath of the ruling, much of the postmortem has portrayed the court’s decision as political. 

“We sought a determination in a court of law to look at the bylaws from a contractual and not political standpoint at all,” Cassie Craven, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Fox News last week. “Unfortunately, the judge converted this into a political issue.”

Four attorneys who reviewed the decision and spoke to WyoFile say otherwise. 

“I think the court really tried to take this very charged and controversial issue and treat it as a legal issue,” said Melissa Alexander, a professor at UW College of Law, who teaches civil procedure. Practicing that kind of judicial restraint, Alexander said, is a helpful thing for the judiciary to do. 

“[It means] not thinking about what they think or feel about these policies, but just asking, ‘What does the law provide? And what’s the proper role of the court in this dispute?’” she said. 

In this case, there wasn’t a role for the court to play, Johnson, a native Wyomingite who was appointed to the bench in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, concluded. 

Freedom of expressive association 

Johnson’s decision has several holdings, said Casper-based trial lawyer Nick Murdock. But the crux of the court’s decision, Murdock said, comes down to freedom of expressive association. Meaning, the government cannot interfere with how a private organization determines its membership due to First Amendment protections. 

“Unless it violates some constitutional provision, then [the court] is not going to get involved,” Murdock said. 

“Defining ‘woman’ is Kappa Kappa Gamma’s bedrock right as a private, voluntary organization — and one this Court may not invade,” Johnson wrote before applying the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. 

In 2000, the high court ruled that the scouting organization was exempt from New Jersey state law that bars anti-gay discrimination. The private organization had fired James Dale, an assistant scout master, when it found out he was gay. Overturning a lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring the Boy Scouts to readmit Dale would violate the private organization’s First Amendment right of expressive association. 

“While the law is free to promote all sorts of conduct in place of harmful behavior, it is not free to interfere with speech for no better reason than promoting an approved message or discouraging a disfavored one, however enlightened either purpose may strike the government,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. 

“Dale controls today, interestingly with the shoe on the other foot,” Johnson wrote. “Whether excluding gay scoutmasters in Dale or including transgender women in Kappa, this Judge may not invade Kappa’s sacrosanct, associational right to engage in protected speech.”

“That’s how procedural justice works,” said Alexander, the UW professor. “The same rules that may lead to a result you don’t like in one case lead to a result you do in another.”

A picture of the U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. The sign out front says "Joseph C O'Mahoney Federal Center United States Courthouse 2120 Capitol Avenue"
The U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

Messages in the footnotes

Anna Reeves Olson, a Casper-based attorney recently elected president of the Wyoming State Bar, also pointed to the freedom of association claim as the crux of the ruling. 

“My impression was that it didn’t increase transgender rights,” Reeves Olson said. “It basically was saying nonprofits can rule their association without interference from the government.”

Reeves Olson said the 68 footnotes throughout the 41-page decision helped demonstrate Johnson’s rigor. 

“I was impressed by how thorough he was and how careful he was in his decision,” she said. “I think he really probably thought about this long and hard.”

Wading through the 72-page complaint, the court had its work cut out for itself. As footnoted in the ruling, the lawsuit was “well-researched, yet meandering” and only devoted four and a half pages “to their actual claims.” 

“If plaintiffs wish to amend their complaint, the court advises that they devote more than 6% of their complaint to their legal claims against defendants,” Johnson wrote. “It also counsels Plaintiffs to provide more factual detail, where feasible, as well as highlight the Defendant(s) it sues under each count and relevant state statutes and authority.

“Finally, if provided another opportunity to clarify unclear language within an amended complaint, Plaintiffs should not copy and paste their complaint in lieu of elaboration or legal research that assists the Court in disentangling their claims.” 

Murdock, who clerked for Johnson decades ago as a young attorney, said that kind of guidance is consistent with the demeanor of the judge. 

“He is a judge that tends to be overly kind,” Murdock said. “I think he’s very gently and very, very kindly, sort of saying, ‘You’re not acting the way you ought to as a lawyer,’” Murdock said. 

Frank Chapman, another Casper-based attorney, said the judge’s remarks provide a clear guidance to the plaintiffs on how to refile. 

“That order does not end the case,” Chapman said. “If the plaintiff wishes to proceed, I believe they may certainly do so.” 

In the days following the ruling, Craven told Fox News she had “a litany of additional legal filings.” She did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment. 

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. The disgruntled members need to resign if they don’t like a sister. The CHAPTER voted for her. NONE of the members have 100% votes! What an embarrassment! Stop already! We have a transgendered alumna who’s a regional officer!

  2. The fact still remains KKG usurped their own charter by allowing a student admission into their sorority who failed to meet one of its own by-laws. The document states you must have, and maintain, a designated GPA ( grade point average) for admission. This was not the case here. KKG bent the rules for admission probably to avoid being called whatever “phobic” you choose as the flavor of the day. How many students were denied admission for this reason? Is there standing for a class action by those students? The focus has all been on genetics, perhaps a deeper dive into who was admitted and if they met the criteria clearly spelled out in the sororities own rules and regulations would be in order. Many institutions are just trying to avoid the bullying and name calling that come with these controversies.

  3. I first met Judge Johnson in 1979. I practiced before him, both in state court and federal court until 2005 when I became a district judge. I know him personally and professionally. He is meticulous and rarely overturned. While I have not studied his decisions in detail, I know his personality and character sufficiently well to suggest that he has never issued a ruling based upon anything other than the letter of the law. To suggest otherwise is a demonstration of either a failure to understand the law or ignorance of his character. Nick Murdock’s comments have great strength because a judge and his clerk get to know each other well. While his character is indeed kind both professionally and personally, his obedience to the rule of law is firm and steadfast.

  4. There is no Judge on the bench today with more integrity and who inspires more confidence than Judge Alan Johnson. Conservatives believe every decision or outcome that doesn’t go their way is “political”. Which is pretty infantile behavior, akin to a whining toddler professing “it isn’t fair (sob)”. For heaven’s sake, where are the adults?

  5. It is incredible to me that any lawyer who has practiced in Wyoming for more than 15 minutes would accuse Judge Alan B. Johnson of considering politics in making a judicial decision. Judge Johnson may be the least political judge in the country. It is one thing to argue with him about the way he has applied the law. It is quite another to besmirch his integrity by accusing him of playing politics with a decision. 99.9% of Wyoming lawyers know better. Ms. Craven’s accusation is a reflection of her lack of class and substance. Apparently she was willing to trade those things for an appearance on Fox News. How sad.

  6. Having dealing with a lot of governmental oversight organizations who are very good at pointing out everything that is wrong and not telling you how to fix it, it was very interesting the judge gave clear guidance how to actually file a complaint that had a chance.
    But in the end – the best assessment is the ruling is based on former rulings that tended to protect private groups who kept people out (gays, women etc)…and now the shoes on the other foot. And of course we always have hypocrisy of the lawyers like Craven who are ONLY about politics and getting on TV who claim everyone else is making things political.

  7. The fact that the seemingly incompetent lawyer (the judges inference, not mine) for the plaintiffs is named Craven is a little thick with irony, no?

  8. I feel that I have missed something. When I was in college the sororities and fraternities members had to vote on the aspiring pledges before they were let in. If they entered under false pretenses you threw them out. If you knew you live with it.

    1. Bingo! I keep wondering the same thing. As a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Colorado School of Mines, every new brother was voted into our fraternity by the present members. What happened at the UW KKG sorority caused the sisters to be ‘led astray’?
      If they voted for this member, they got what they voted for. Sour grapes for them. But… if they had no vote… then that’s a totally different kettle of fish.
      That part of the equation of this scenario has never been explained as far as I have ever read.

  9. The Right of Association Protected by the First Amendment, also protects non-Association as well as Dis-Association.
    Johnson’s Ruling exemplifies the true Sacred Powerful Nature of the First Amendment and it’s essential foundation for any Liberal Democratic Republic.

  10. What some people won’t do for attention! The genes we are born with are what we are. No one can actually be changed after birth from one sex to another. All of the cutting and whacking and changed laws is not going to actually change how we are developed in our mother’s womb. Spend the money on counseling and help them deal with who they are.

    1. You are right, the genes you are born with is who you are. Some people are born with both male and female organs, and of course the biggest sex organ is between your ears.

      1. Yes and think what the brave young trans woman is going through just to live in Wyoming. And, pray tell, what more she would go through if she now tried to join a fraternity.

    2. This post illustrates the total lack of understanding and useful knowledge as exemplified by saying “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Just because reality doesn’t fit within a narrow meme doesn’t allow for invalidating the truth.