San Juan County readies for political shift following federal court ruling on voting districts

Decision reverses the historic political domination by whites over Navajos and sets the stage for special elections in November.<br>

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "This is a historic moment for us," said Louise Rock, from the Oljato chapter of the Navajo Nation at a hearing in Bluff on Thursday. San Juan County residents were presented with proposals of the newly redrawn county commission and school board districts during hearings in Monticello and Bluff, November 16, 2017. The redistricting proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts as the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation. The lawsuit seeks the redrawing of voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census. Last year, U. S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby ruled the voting districts in the sprawling southeastern Utah 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.

A federal court judge in Utah has adopted new voting district boundaries in San Juan County which could reverse the historic political domination by whites over Navajos there.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby on Thursday evening issued a ruling that gives Navajos a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board districts.

Shelby ordered the new boundaries be used in special elections for all commission and school board seats in November.

According to the new boundaries, County Commission District 1 will have an American Indian population of 11.1 percent; District 2 will have an American Indian population of 65.6 percent; and District 3 will have an American Indian population of 79.9 percent.

During a hearing earlier this month, Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City-based attorney representing San Juan County, contended the redrawn boundaries would amount to unconstitutional gerrymandering in the sprawling southeast Utah county and would discriminate against white voters.

In the ruling, Shelby wrote: “It is critically important that the officials representing the citizens of San Juan County are elected under constitutional districts — not districts that have been racially gerrymandered. The County’s objections do not explain how such elections would burden the County, nor does the County address the rights of its citizens to have officials elected from constitutional districts.”

One of the plaintiffs, former County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, who is Navajo, hailed the ruling as recognition of the rights of American Indians in San Juan County.

“It is good news,” he said Friday. “It’s unfortunate that it had to take a lawsuit to settle this issue. White people in Blanding and Monticello decided to prevent the redistricting to occur.”

But San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said the county will appeal the ruling and ask the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver for a stay on the November voting order.

“Our appeal is ready to file, so we’ll file it,” he said Friday. “It doesn’t make sense to divide Blanding into three districts. They say it’s only two but it’s really three.”

Further, Lyman said the ruling is biased. “It’s intended to hurt Blanding and it’s aimed at me.”

In 2015, Shelby had overseen a trial in which Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor crimes for leading a group on motorized vehicles up Recapture Canyon, federal land where such use is not allowed. Lyman continues to appeal the conviction in federal court.

In the voting district case, the Navajo Nation filed suit in January 2012, alleging that San Juan County was 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 had argued it is unfair that 47 percent of the population should have just one representative on the commission. “It doesn’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.

But Shelby said that for San Juan County’s argument to hold up, 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.

Steven Boos, a Durango, Colorado-based attorney representing the Navajo Nation, had argued there is no evidence that white residents of San Juan County have been discriminated against.

“That may be the case some day,” Boos said. “But there is no evidence of that in the short term.”

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. One district was more than 90 percent Navajo. The other two held large white majorities.

Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the commission and took office in 1986. 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. Bruce Adams represents District 1, and Phil Lyman hails from District 2.

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