Robert Gehrke: Utah Navajos won a big court ruling that should forever end their second-class status in San Juan County

Robert Gehrke

For decades, Navajo voters were the victims of institutionalized discrimination and disenfranchisement in San Juan County, and the barrier that relegated them to second-class citizens seemed insurmountable.

Despite making up a majority of this southeastern Utah county, biased and patently unfair boundaries for commission districts ensured that no more than one of the three members would be Navajo.

This was accomplished by the old “pack-and-crack” technique. Roughly 93 percent of the voters in commission District 3 were Navajo, while in the other two about 30 percent belonged to the tribe.

That means the minority white population in San Juan County would always get to choose two commissioners (who were white) and retain a stranglehold on power.

It had real consequences. Those living on the reservation consistently got the short end of the stick involving everything from road maintenance to health funding. The school board seats were even more skewed.

If the Navajos didn’t like it, what could they do? Vote them out? It was mathematically impossible. This majority population was, in a very real way, entirely deprived of their right to democratic representation.

It was an affront to democracy.

And now, finally, it appears to be over. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a 2016 ruling by Judge Robert Shelby that threw out the unfair and undemocratic districts and replaced them with a more equitable arrangement.

We saw the results in the 2018 election when, for the first time in the county’s history, two Navajo commissioners were elected to serve — Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy — giving them majority control.

But it wasn’t over. Grayeyes’ residency and eligibility to serve on the commission were challenged and upheld.

And the predominantly white County Commission, faced with losing the undemocratic monopoly it has always enjoyed, decided to sue to keep the discriminatory districts in place, to defend the indefensible.

Thankfully, it lost resoundingly.

“We find no error in the district court’s well-reasoned rulings,” the appellate court ruled. “Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s decisions in all respects.”

That was notable because some, like former commissioner and current state Rep. Phil Lyman, have complained for years that Shelby — who found Lyman guilty for his role in an illegal ATV protest ride — has had a vendetta against San Juan. I guess Shelby knows more about the law than Lyman. Nonetheless, Lyman has said he wants the county to continue the crusade and ask the court to reconsider. He even talked about appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.

But Commissioner Bruce Adams said, in a moment of candor, that he now sees the case in a new light, believes the county was given bad legal advice, and wants it to end, at long last.

Thanks to the fight, the county now may be on the hook for as much as $3 million in legal fees. And because of this lawsuit and other ill-advised court battles, a quarter of the entire county budget is being sucked up by attorneys — money the county wanted Utah taxpayers to help pay (lawmakers declined).

With the dispute resolved, perhaps residents of San Juan County can focus on healing — but it won’t be easy, as Zak Podmore, reporting from San Juan County through a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune and Report for America, has been documenting.

Old resentments over race, power and powerlessness have left an enormous rift. New resentments over things like the Bears Ears National Monument have driven the wedge deeper.

For some in the once-dominant white, Latter-day Saint population, losing power — even a degree of power to which they were never really entitled — has been a difficult adjustment.

Recently, the commission held a meeting on the reservation, the first time that has happened. Wendy Black, a prominent San Juan County resident, complained how difficult it was to have to travel so far south to participate in her government — as if it hasn’t historically been that difficult for Navajo residents to travel north for meetings.

There has even been talk of splitting the county, the whites in the north, the Navajos in the south — a truly awful, less-than-half-baked idea.

Last week, San Juan residents — mostly from the old guard white families that ran the county for generations — submitted a petition asking voters to decide whether the county should study changing its form of government.

It’s possible that, for example, expanding from three commissioners to five would dilute power, create more swing districts and yield a more balanced government.

Considering the history, it’s also possible it’s an attempt to re-rig the process.

And given how many years it took to dismantle the previous discriminatory system that disenfranchised and disadvantaged an entire generation, if not more, it would be a shame to see all of that progress squandered.