San Juan County officials contended Wednesday that the federal court is poised to discriminate against white voters in the sprawling southeast Utah county.
That argument is in reaction to newly proposed voting district boundaries for county commission and school board. The voting district maps preferred by an expert appointed by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby would give Navajos a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board districts.
If Shelby were to adopt the maps, it could reverse the historic political domination by whites over Navajos in San Jaun County.
That would amount to unconstitutional gerrymandering, argued Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City-based attorney representing San Juan County. He recommended that Shelby toss the map and start the process over.
“The results, in my mind, are suspicious,” Trentadue told the judge. “He [the expert] has the burden to show how he reached those results without taking race into account.”
The judge didn’t agree, saying anyone proposing a thesis in court, such as Trentadue had, must back it up with evidence.
According to the boundary proposal, County Commission District 1 would have an American Indian population of 11.1 percent. District 2 would have an American Indian population of 65.6 percent. And District 3 would have an American Indian population of 79.9 percent.
The Navajo Nation filed suit in January 2012, alleging that San Juan County is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by ensuring that non-Indian voters hold majorities on the commission and school boards.
Last year, Shelby ruled the voting districts in San Juan County, which today is home to 16,895 residents, are unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians. He ordered the county to redraw them.
In June, Shelby declared the county’s new proposals did not meet legal mandates. He then appointed Bernard Grofman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, to redraw them.
Grofman created three potential maps for new county commission voting boundaries, and two for the school board. After a pair of public hearings in San Juan County last month, Grofman selected one map for each body.
San Juan County is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to the most recent data.
Trentadue argued Wednesday that it’s unfair that 47 percent of the population should have just one representative on the commission. “It does’t pass the smell test,” he said.
Trentadue also maintained that Navajos vote for Democrats and that whites vote Republican. As such, the proposed “gerrymandering” is both political and racial, he said.
Nonetheless, for San Juan County’s argument to hold up, Shelby said it would have to show a long-standing discrimination against white voters. Quite the contrary, the judge said, the county’s history is that there has been no time when whites didn’t control the county commission and school board.
“Can San Juan County show that white citizens will have less opportunity to participate in the political process in San Juan County [under the proposal]?” he asked.
There is no evidence that white residents of San Juan County have been discriminated against, said Steven Boos, a Durango, Colorado-based attorney representing the Navajo Nation.
“That may be the case some day,” Boos said. “But there is no evidence of that in the short term.”
Further, Boos said that Grofman’s redistricting followed the law and is not based on race.
“All that is being offered [by San Juan County] is a suspicion that happened, but no specific facts,” Boos said. The proposed maps, based on 2010 census data “have very little to do with race.”
According to Grofman’s report to the court, the proposed voting district maps are based on census geography in an effort not to divide communities with boundary lines.
“The plans are drawn from a good government perspective in which race was not a preponderant motive,” he said.
San Juan County’s partisan commission once was elected at large. The three commission districts were created as part of a 1984 federal court consent decree — the outcome of an earlier court battle by Navajos to gain representation on the panel.
Mark Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the commission and took office in the mid-1980s. He served four terms. His brother Kenneth Maryboy was then elected to that District 3 seat and served for two terms.
Rebecca Benally now holds what has become the Navajo seat. Adams represents District 1, and Phil Lyman hails from District 2.
Shelby had said he would rule soon but gave no specific date.