(CN) – A Utah county took its fight of a federal judge’s redrawing of election maps – done to remedy what the judge found as racial gerrymandering – to a 10th Circuit panel, arguing the “absurd results” included a historic takeover by Navajo Democrats in a special election.
Besides redrawing the map, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ordered San Juan County to remove people from office and replace them with winners from last week’s special election.
“These are the absurd results that occur when redistricting doesn’t happen at the local level,” attorney Jesse C. Trentadue of the Salt Lake City firm Suitter Axland, arguing on behalf of San Juan County, told the 10th Circuit panel.
Located in the southeastern corner of Utah, San Juan County is home to 15,356 people spread out across 8,000 square miles, an area nearly twice the size of Connecticut. People of Navajo descent make up 49 percent of the population, white or Hispanic people make up 47 percent. Historically, the Navajo residents tend to vote Democrat while the others usually support Republicans.
Despite the near even divide, the San Juan County commission is typically led by a Republican majority. The federal government previously sued the county over racial gerrymandering in 1983, resulting in a consent decree requiring the county to adopt a one-person, one-vote system and to break the county into smaller election districts.
When the county redrew districts in 2011, it altered two districts that held a white majority but left the third district with a heavy Navajo population untouched. Navajo Nation sued the county, claiming the new boundaries violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
In 2015, Shelby agreed and ordered the county to redraw both commission election districts and school election board districts. He also ordered the county to vacate all occupied seats and hold a special election in November.
San Juan’s actions were “intentional racial gerrymandering – there was no other intent than to load Navajos in one district,” Navajo Nation assistant attorney general Paul Spruhan told the panel.
Attorney Steven C. Boos, who represents several named plaintiffs in the case, told the panel that “Judge Shelby did an extremely meticulous job in this case and his decision deserves to be upheld.”
Leaning on the 1983 consent decree, San Juan County argues it was legally mandated to maintain three districts, concentrating Navajo voters in one of them. U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe questioned the county’s reading of the order.
“You think you did what you had to do by the consent decree? The consent decree is actually quite brief and it says you cannot have one sweeping district.”
But Trentadue said Shelby overstepped his authority be redrawing the districts based on census data.
“Why wouldn’t you use census blocs?” Briscoe asked.
Trentadue noted many people in San Juan County rely on landmarks to explain where they live and use post office boxes for their mail. Accordingly, he said, using census blocs “has been a nightmare because people point to a map for the census and say that’s where I live.”
Briscoe interrupted, “You could give them a map, to which Trentadue attempted to reply: “Then you have the school districts—”
Again Briscoe cut him off. “You could put the school district map on top of the census map,” she said. “Aren’t there more details on the map?”
Trentadue reiterated that Shelby’s order did more harm than good.
“I think the court erred in serious racial gerrymandering,” Trentadue told the panel, accusing Shelby of “packing Democratic voters” and “diluting Republican voting power.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Nancy Mortiz and Allison H. Eid also sat on the panel. They did not indicate when they will rule.