10th Circuit Upholds New Districts in Navajo Voting Rights Case

Montezuma Canyon in San Juan County. (U.S. Geological Survey via Wikipedia)

(CN) – The 10th Circuit Tuesday approved new school board and county commission election districts for Utah’s geographically largest county, finding that a lower court properly sided with the Navajo Nation, which claimed that the old districts were unconstitutional. 

In a 42-page ruling, Judge Nancy Moritz said that the lower court correctly determined that the county did not have a compelling interest to justify “racially drawn boundaries” of a county commission district, and that several districts in the county’s remedial redistricting plan were based on race – without a good reason. 

“In summary, we find no error in the district court’s well-reasoned rulings,” Moritz said in the ruling. 

The Navajo Nation sued San Juan County in 2012 for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because 52% percent of the county’s population at the time identified as Native American but were underrepresented in both the county commission and school board elections.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby found in favor of the Navajo Nation in 2015, ordering San Juan County to redraw its districts. San Juan County then, once again, developed race-based districts in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and the court appointed a special master – University of California political science professor Bernard Grofman – to develop new districts.

San Juan County had created three commission counties – one intentionally white, one intentionally Native American, and one with a slight Native American majority – but Grofman drew districts based on census data following the one person, one vote principle.

Grofman attempted to keep cities within single districts, ignore partisan considerations and “tried to unpair incumbents,” according to the ruling. Before submitting the new districts, he reviewed the reviewed the racial makeup of the districts and accordingly reduced the Native American population in one district.

San Juan County’s school board districts had a population deviation of 38%.  

“In other words, the districts weren’t equally populated,” Moritz said. “Some districts contained substantially more voters than other districts.” 

Grofman’s districts, on the other hand, deviated by only 2%.

The district court ordered San Juan County to use the new districts and to hold special elections last November to replace all commissioners and school board members appointed under the illegal voting districts.

San Juan County argued before the 10th Circuit in November 2018 that it was not the court’s place to create voting districts, but it was unable to persuade the panel that its original districts survived scrutiny.

“Grofman drew his lines based on race-neutral districting principles and then, at the end, accounted for a potential [Voting Rights Act] problem in one of the resulting school-board districts,” Moritz said. “These approaches are diametrically opposed: the county began its redistricting with strict racial proportionality in mind and made changes to districts to achieve that goal, and Grofman ended his process with one individual adjustment based on race.”

The U.S. sued San Juan County in 1983 because its single-district system at the time violated the voting rights of Native Americans.

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