A view of Navajo Mountain. Tribal members in a town of the same name vote in San Juan County.

Major Navajo Nation Voting Rights Win

Stephanie Woodard

A federal judge has ruled that the election districts for San Juan County, Utah’s school board and county commission are unconstitutional. Decisions handed down in December 2015 and February 2016, respectively, ordered redistricting for each group. San Juan County overlaps a northern portion of the Navajo Nation’s reservation.

Leonard Gorman, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said he was delighted to learn that the Navajo people’s voice had finally been heard.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch called the decision in Navajo Nation v. San Juan County an “even-handed application of the law with respect to our tribal members.”

Branch added that San Juan County’s Navajo voters have long endured abrogation of their equal right to vote. Despite making up 52 percent of the county’s population, tribal members have never held a majority of seats on either the school board or the county commission.

The current case is not the first time the county has faced an equal-rights matter. In the 1980s, it settled two Department of Justice voting-rights lawsuits, agreeing to give up at-large elections in favor of single-member districts and agreeing to provide federally mandated language assistance to those not proficient in English. The county’s elections were under DOJ oversight until 2002.

The school-board redistricting plans for the current matter were submitted in mid-February. The court has not accepted either plan, nor has it set a deadline for both sides to present county-commission redistricting plans.

At a status conference this week, US District Judge Robert Shelby indicated that he would like expert help in deciding among competing plans. That could include assistance in sifting through the very complex issues and/or more discussions with both sides, said the Navajo Nation’s attorney, Steven Boos, of Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel.

“However,” said Boos, “it is significant that the judge ruled the existing districts unconstitutional.”

“It’s now on the judge’s shoulders,” said Gorman.

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