San Juan County’s request to stay November elections of all seats on the county commission and school board in wake of a federal court’s ruling to redraw voting districts has been denied by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for the county filed an emergency motion on Feb. 27 in the Denver court. They objected to special elections being held this year and requested that the balloting continue under the previous redistricting plan until San Juan County’s appeal has been decided.
In a Dec. 21 ruling, Judge Robert Shelby, U.S. District Court for Utah, gave Navajo voters a majority in two of three newly drawn commission districts and in three of five school board districts. Shelby had ordered that all seats be vacated and that special elections be held in November.
During an earlier hearing, 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 of 16,895 residents and would discriminate against white voters.
But Shelby said that for San Juan County’s discrimination 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.
In Monday’s ruling, the 10th Circuit Court said that San Juan County failed to show that it is likely to succeed in its appeal of Shelby’s ruling.
“Likewise, it has failed to show how the absence of a stay will result in irreparable injury to the County,” the appeals court ruling said. “The harm to the plaintiffs-appellees and to the public interest also weigh against granting a stay.
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.
In 2016, Shelby ruled the county’s voting districts wered unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians and ordered the county to redraw them.
In June 2017, 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.
San Juan County is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to the most recent data.