San Juan County Commission votes to end appeal in seven-year-long voting rights lawsuit with Navajo Nation

Monticello • San Juan County decided Monday not to pursue further appeals in the landmark voting rights case that led to the election of the county’s first majority-Native American commission, ending seven years of litigation.

The commissioners voted unanimously at a special meeting in Monticello not to challenge a July 16 ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court’s finding that San Juan County had violated the Voting Rights Act when it drew its commission districts along racial lines.

“We’ve already lost a lot of money,” said Commission Chairman Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation who won his seat in the November election after the voting districts were redrawn by a court-appointed special master.

“This particular issue took place only on discrimination as well as undermining the Native Americans in San Juan County," Maryboy said. "I do believe we should leave it alone and leave it as is.”

The county paid the Salt Lake City-based law firm Suitter Axland $1.1 million between 2015 and 2018 to represent the county in two voting rights cases. The redistricting case was the more expensive of the two. It dates back to 2012, when the Navajo Nation first filed suit. Under Voting Rights Act provisions, the county could be forced to pay an additional $3.2 million in plaintiffs’ fees.

The county could have asked for a review by all of the 10th Circuit judges, as opposed to the three-judge panel that unanimously upheld the lower court, or appealed to the Supreme Court. Now that the county has declined to appeal, the case goes back to District Judge Robert Shelby who oversaw the original case. Shelby will assess fees to the county.

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat from the Navajo Nation who was also elected in November, said his decision to vote to end the lawsuit has been determined “since the world began.”

Commissioner Bruce Adams, a 15-year veteran of the body, initially supported the appeal to the 10th Circuit in 2017 but voted with Grayeyes and Maryboy on Monday to end the suit. Adams, a Republican, noted that the Navajo Nation’s attorneys indicated to the commission that they are willing to negotiate on the plaintiffs’ fees, and that contributed to his decision to vote against further appeals.

Blanding City Councilwoman Cheryl Bowers was disappointed with the vote. The commissioners “should have allowed public comment,” she said, "and I think they should have at least spoken to the city of Blanding to ask their opinion.”

Bowers and other council members have been critical of the new voting districts, which split the 3,700-person town of Blanding, the largest in the county, into two and put a portion of its outskirts into a third district. She noted that Blanding paid $15,000 to file an amicus brief in the 10th Circuit appeal to protest the new district maps. (The 10th Circuit rejected the county’s arguments that the new districts had disenfranchised Blanding voters.)

“Blanding doesn’t have a county commissioner,” Bowers said. “It looks like they don’t care about Blanding.”

Interim County Administrator David Everitt said if the attorney fees from the Navajo Nation are more than a few hundred thousand dollars, as will likely be the case, it will “require some creative thinking” as to how the county is going to pay. Everitt said the county’s options include raising property taxes, debt service financing, or possibly borrowing from other funds the county has in reserve, which could require a public vote.

The county’s “rainy day” fund had over $9 million at the beginning of 2016, but by 2018 it had dropped to $2.5 million, in part to pay for a number of lawsuits and lobbying efforts in which the previous County Commission was engaged. Everitt said further tapping the general fund to pay for large, one-time legal costs is no longer an option.

Grayeyes called the legal fees “the sins of the [previous] commission," which was made up of Adams, now-state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, and Democrat Rebecca Benally of the Navajo Nation’s Aneth Chapter and a recently appointed member of the Tribal Treasury Advisory Committee.

“We inherited [the fees, and now] we have to answer for it," Grayeyes said.

The Navajo Nation presented a number of settlement offers to the county between 2014 and 2016, warning of the rising costs of the suit. The county did not respond to any of the offers, and its subsequent appeal to the 10th Circuit added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the total price tag.

“The evidence was there so clear that Navajos had been disenfranchised for so long," Grayeyes said.

“It’s just like going to Las Vegas," he added. "You gamble, and [if] you lose, you lose. Here it’s the same way.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune.