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After Navajo Nation sues, judge orders San Juan County to redraw lines

First Published      Last Updated Feb 23 2016 08:28 pm

Court » The county felt litigation from the 1980s meant a largely American Indian district had to keep its boundaries.

San Juan County must redraw the lines of its largely American Indian district after a judge found the county had violated the 14th and 15th Amendments.

The Navajo Nation sued the county in the U.S. District Court of Utah after a 2011 districting left the boundaries of the largely American Indian District 3 unchanged. The Navajo Nation claimed that the County Commission relied on race in its decision to maintain the district's boundaries.

"Keeping an election district in place for decades without regular reconsideration is unusual in any context," federal Judge Robert Shelby wrote in his decision. "But when the asserted justification for this inertia is a racial classification, it offends basic democratic principles."




Despite its substantial American Indian population, Utah's largest county never seemed to elect American Indian representatives before the 1980s. After the U.S. Department of Justice sued the county in 1983, the county settled on moving from at-large districts to three single-member districts.

The county drew district lines after the settlement, and in 1986, District 3 elected the county's first American Indian county commissioner, according to court documents. Since then, District 3 — the county's largest concentration of American Indians — has had an American Indian commissioner.

"In this way, the county moved from a system that historically denied representation to a minority group to one that allowed that group greater participation in the political process," court documents read.

But in 2011, a Navajo Nation representative urged the county to consider redistricting, based on shifts in the county's demographics. The lines remained unchanged after the 1990 census and 2000 census, and county officials also believed the districts had become "malapportioned in population," according to court documents.

But the Navajo Nation claims that the 2011 redistricting was "racially motivated" and violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The county moved two voting precincts from District 1 to District 2, but it made no changes to the boundaries of District 3.

The county is "undoubtedly" half American Indian, according to the judge's decision. Districts 1 and 2 are about 30 percent American Indian, and District 3 is about 93 percent American Indian.

San Juan County officials said the 1980s litigation required them to keep the boundaries for District 3 the same.

"The logical end of the county's position is that the boundaries of District 3 must remain fixed even if subsequent demographic changes or evolution in voting rights law cause the county's election districts to become constitutionally infirm," the judge wrote.

But the judge found that the settlement agreement didn't require that the county maintain the boundary lines for District 3.

"Taking all reasonable inferences in favor of San Juan County, county officials may have ensured that one election district was packed with an overwhelming majority of Native American voters because they mistakenly thought they must," the judge wrote. But the county "failed to attend to minimal redistricting obligations for over 25 years, and then incorrectly treated the racially based District 3 as a permanent fixture of its politics."

The judge ordered that the districts be redrawn.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MikeyPanda

 

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