San Juan County asks courts to pause redistricting that would give more political power to Navajo voters

(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, Nov. 16, 2017. San Juan County residents were presented with proposals of the newly redrawn county commission and school board districts during hearings in Monticello. A federal judge is approving new county election districts in southeastern Utah after finding the boundaries discriminated against American Indians who make up roughly half the population. The new San Juan County voting districts are designed to give native residents an equal voice in local races, but commissioner Phil Lyman said Friday, Dec. 22, 2017, they are unfair and the county plans to appeal.

San Juan County officials are trying to halt a federal judge’s decision to redraw voting district boundaries that would give Navajos more political power in the county.

Lawyers for the county made their case in an emergency motion filed Tuesday in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. They objected to special elections being held this year and requested that the elections continue under the previous redistricting plan until the appeal has been decided.

In his Dec. 21 ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby gave Navajo voters a majority in two of three commission districts and three of five school board districts. Shelby had ordered that all seats be vacated and that special elections be held in November.

The proposed new voting district boundaries could help elect a majority of Navajos to the county commission for the first time. (U.S. District Court for Utah)

“This is beginning to look very ridiculous, wasting millions of dollars on a court case that they lost,” said Mark Maryboy, a former county commissioner. In the mid-80s, Maryboy was the first Navajo to be elected a San Juan County commissioner.

He called the county “relentless,” and said the money being spent on the lawsuit could have been spent on teacher salaries and education for the county’s students.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said the appeals court should give the case to a judge who is “unbiased and doesn’t have an ax to grind.” Shelby had been the judge for the 2015 trial in which Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor charges stemming from a protest ride up Recapture Canyon, which is federal land where motorized vehicles are prohibited.

In Tuesday’s filing, the county’s lawyers argue that the new redistricting plan would be both racial and partisan gerrymandering because Navajo voters tend to support Democratic candidates.

The voting-rights litigation began in January 2012, when the Navajo Nation said San Juan County was violating the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment by ensuring that non-Navajo voters held majorities on the County Commission and the school board.

Shelby ruled in its favor in July, calling the boundaries unconstitutional, and he ordered that the districts be redrawn. Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, was chosen to redraw the county’s districts.

He mapped out options for each body — three for the commission boundaries and two for the school board — and then selected one each after two public hearings.