A lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation in January 2012 over voting districts in San Juan County, Utah, is moving forward after a federal judge rejected a motion by the county to dismiss the suit.
In a ruling in March, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby said the Navajo Nation had provided enough facts to support a plausible claim against the county. His ruling does not mean the Navajos would prevail, only that the case could continue.
The lawsuit stems from disagreements over how the county commissioners are chosen in the sprawling, 7933-squaremile county in the southeastern corner of Utah.
San Juan County is the only county in the state to elect its commissioners through a by-district vote rather than at large. The system was the result of a 1984 settlement agreement developed in response to a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, which had charged that the at-large system diluted the voting strength of Native Americans.
After the county began voting by district in 1984, Mark Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the county commission, representing the newly created, predominantly Navajo District 3, which includes the communities of Aneth and Montezuma Creek, and the Red Mesa chapters.
Since that time, there have always been two Caucasian county commissioners and one Native American, according to information in court documents.
But after the 2010 census – which found that non-Hispanic whites constituted approximately 46 percent of the county’s population – the Navajos sought to have the districts redrawn. They argued that Native Americans made up roughly 52 percent of the county’s total population and that it was unfair that they were all “packed” into a single district, because this meant there would never be more than a single Native American on the county commission.
According to the complaint filed by the Navajos, District 1 of the county encompasses 5,347 people and is roughly 30 percent Native American; District 2 has 4,550 people and is 29 percent Native American; and District 3 has 4,949 people, 93 percent Native American.
In November 2011, the county commissioners took up the issue of redistricting, but voted 2-1 (with Kenneth Maryboy dissenting) to tweak the boundaries of the two white-majority districts while leaving District 3 as is. They ignored a reapportionment plan suggested by the Navajo Nation.
The Navajos then filed suit.
The county had asked for dismissal of the Navajos’ claims alleging violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and of the Voting Rights Act. The county argued that the court did not have jurisdiction to alter the 1984 settlement because it had been agreed to by the county and the federal government and was essentially a contract that could not be changed.
However, Shelby rejected this argument, saying the Navajos were not a party to the settlement and thus were allowed to challenge it. He also stated that they were not seeking to change the substance of the settlement, which established the single-member voting districts but did not draw the boundaries.
“When the court found in 1984 that the ‘process leading to the selection of county commissioners in San Juan County, Utah’ violated the Voting Rights Act, this meant that a system based on at-large districts impermissibly blocked Native American voters from appropriate representation, specifically by denying rights to a then-minority Native American population,” wrote Shelby.
“Navajo Nation in this suit claims that a subsequent system of single-member election districts has denied rights to a majority Native American population, based on boundaries last altered in 2011 – 27 years after the Settlement was adopted in 1984. The difference between the subject and purpose of the two suits is clear.”
Shelby said the county’s arguments were “at odds with its own prior conduct” because if altering election-district boundaries “is permissible only through the original litigation, then it is unclear how the Commission could have redrawn its boundaries in 2011 without first obtaining permission from the original court.”
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman told the Free Press that the matter was in the hands of the county’s lawyers and that the issue would be decided in court.
The parties are now in the process of filing various motions and designating experts to testify. According to a scheduling order filed by the court, the case could stretch on well into 2016.