Nearly 40 years ago, newly sworn-in San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes and his late wife bought a mobile home in Page, Ariz., where the Navajo couple’s four children could live while they pursued the education that was unavailable at the time on reservation lands in Utah.
Grayeyes’ continued ownership of the home — which sits gutted, boarded up and uninhabited — was a key piece of evidence in a suit brought by the commission candidate whom the Navajo Democrat defeated in November’s election.
Republican contender Kelly Laws asked a state judge Dec. 28, the last possible day to make such a petition, to undo the vote’s outcome, alleging Grayeyes, a Navajo activist who helped lead the campaign to establish Bears Ears National Monument, was really an Arizona resident and therefore ineligible to hold elected office in Utah.
In a ruling released Tuesday, however, 7th District Judge Don Torgerson concluded Grayeyes has indeed lived on the Utah side of Navajo Mountain throughout his life and continues to do so.
“He is connected to San Juan County as deeply as any resident of the county," the judge wrote after fielding a day of testimony Jan. 22 in his Monticello courtroom. "In practice, he has always participated in the voting process in San Juan County. And his rich cultural history adds to his connection — he has always returned to the area and will always intend to return to the area when he has traveled away.”
The decision could put to rest a long-running controversy surrounding Grayeyes' residency, affirming his seat on the San Juan County Commission. Torgerson said Grayeyes will be awarded “reasonable” court costs.
This marked the second time lawyers for Grayeyes appeared in court to defend their client’s eligibility to run for the commission seat vacated by Phil Lyman.
Acting on a complaint filed by another failed GOP candidate for the seat, county officials had removed Grayeyes from the ballot in the middle of the campaign. After dispatching a sheriff’s deputy to the Navajo reservation to investigate, County Clerk John David Nielson concluded Grayeyes did not live on Navajo Mountain, a tribal chapter that straddles the Arizona-Utah line.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer reinstated Grayeyes’ candidacy, ruling that Nielson did not follow proper procedures for handling such complaints, even backdating a crucial document. The Democrat’s subsequent victory led to the first-ever Navajo majority on San Juan’s main legislative body — fellow tribal member Kenneth Maryboy also was elected to the three-member commission — long dominated by conservative descendants of the region’s Mormon pioneers.
In the meantime, Grayeyes’ lawyers have been awarded $225,00 in legal fees in the federal case.
Now the same team of attorneys, led by Steven Boos, has prevailed again, this time in state court, where Laws’ lawyer, Peter Stirba, tried to prove another person has lived in the Piute Mesa home, on the Utah side of Navajo Mountain, that Grayeyes cited as his Utah residence.
His key witness was a caseworker who had visited the home three times in the past five years but had never seen Grayeyes. Twice the door was answered by his cousin, with whom Grayeyes had been in a dispute over the home’s ownership, according to court filings.
In addition to Grayeyes' Page property, Stirba pointed to his Arizona driver license as proof of residence in that state, but the judge was not swayed.
Utah law defines a place of residence as the “single location where a person’s habitation is fixed.” Grayeyes' itinerate lifestyle does not easily square with that definition and the judge allowed that it could mean a larger geographic area for someone who observes traditional cultural practices.
Grayeyes never lived in the Page home, which was purchased as a place for his children to use while they attended school, Torgerson wrote. The children returned on weekends to Navajo Mountain, where Grayeyes stayed to tend his livestock and maintain employment in tribal politics.
The judge put more weight on where Grayeyes sleeps most nights and where he has voted. Testimony indicated he stays with his sister or his daughter at Navajo Mountain 60 percent to 80 percent of the time, and occasionally stays with his girlfriend in Tuba City, Ariz.
Grayeyes, who is 71, has voted in San Juan County elections since 1984 and has never been registered to vote in another state during that time.
Testimony also showed that Grayeyes is related to nearly everyone else at Piute Mesa. His umbilical cord is even buried there. In Navajo tradition, the place where a person’s umbilical cord is interred is a strong signifier of belonging, although Stirba argued that is not normally cited for establishing residency.
Piute Mesa is remote, accessed through narrow canyon roads passing through Arizona. It takes 4½ hours to drive to Monticello, San Juan’s county seat. The closest grocery story, post office and motor vehicle division are all located in Arizona towns, so nearly all Navajo Mountain residents have Arizona licenses and postal addresses, and seek vital services in that state.
The Grayeyes family’s reliance on services in Arizona underscores one of the possible consequences of Navajos' disproportionate lack of political representation in San Juan County — despite American Indians comprising a slight majority of the population. In their filings, his lawyers noted the irony of Laws using Grayeyes' Arizona ties, brought about by a shortage of educational services on the Utah side of the reservation, in an effort to remove a Navajo tribal member from the County Commission.
A federal judge last year ruled the county’s voting districts were illegally rigged to ensure a white majority on the three-member County Commission and five-member school board. After the county failed to submit acceptable maps for new voting districts, Judge Robert Shelby outsourced the task to an expert who came up with district lines that gave Navajo candidates a chance at winning two commission seats.
Grayeyes secured the seat previously held by Lyman, a public-lands firebrand who declined to seek re-election and now represents much of southeast Utah in the state Legislature.
Correction • Jan. 30, 5:30 p.m.: The state judge awarded Willie Grayeyes court costs. An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of this award.