County ordered to hold elections using new districts
San Juan County (Utah) school board and county commission elections will proceed this fall using the new election districts drawn by a court-appointed expert, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The county had asked the court to allow the election to proceed using the old districts pending its appeal of a December federal district court ruling ordering it to adopt the new districts, which were the result of six years of litigation in a racial gerrymandering case brought by the Navajo Nation and individual Navajo voters in 2011.
The county also disputed the district court’s order to vacate all the county commission and school board seats and hold new elections for all of them rather than just the ones that would have been up for election in 2018.
“The County has failed to show that it is likely to succeed in having this court overturn the district court’s summary-judgment decisions or remedial relief on appeal. Likewise, it has failed to show how the absence of a stay will result in irreparable injury to the County,” wrote the appellate judges in their order. “The harm to the plaintiffs-appellees and to the public interest also weigh against granting a stay.”
Utah Navajos, who constitute a slight majority in San Juan County, have long held that the existing districts are drawn to favor white voters, even after the county was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1983 over the at-large election of commissioners it had at that time. Whites have always held a majority of the seats on the school board and county commission. The new districts give Native Americans the majority in three of the five school board districts and two of the three county commission districts.
In its request for a stay, the county argued the new districts overcompensate for any inequity, giving Navajos a “supermajority” in most districts in spite of the fact that they comprise just 52 percent of the population. It further argues that since Navajos tend to vote Democratic and the white voters tend to vote Republican, the new court-ordered districts ironically constitute both racial and party gerrymandering.
Requiring the candidates who were not up for election to run again not only disrupts the government but places an undue cost burden on both the candidates and the county, the motion states.
“The individuals elected to the County Commission and School Board whose term of office extends beyond the 2018 election cycle were elected by the voters of San Juan County and, without any evidence showing that their election to office was due to what the Court has determined was an unconstitutional election plan, they should not be removed from office,” reads the court document.
Jesse Trentadue of Suitter Axland, PLLC, the county’s attorneys in this case, said the county will proceed with its appeal even though the appellate court stated the county failed to show it is likely to succeed before the same court.
“That’s typical language for an appellate court to use,” Trentadue said. “The county has no plans to drop its appeal.”
Meanwhile, a very interesting election is shaping up with long-time county commissioner and states’ rights advocate Phil Lyman, a white Republican, announcing Monday he will seek to replace retiring Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, in the Utah State Legislature. Six candidates, some white and some Navajo, are vying to replace Lyman in the newly redrawn (and now mostly Navajo) District 2, including Bears Ears activist Willie Greyeyes, Maryleen Tahy, Harve Holiday, Kelly Laws, Wendy Black and Shelby D. Seely.
In District 3, the other mostly Navajo district, Rebecca Benally will defend her seat against former commissioner Kenneth Maryboy and Tara Benally. Both candidates in District 1 — incumbent Bruce Adams and Blanding City Councilman Logan Monson — are Anglo.
School board candidates include Lori Maughan in District 1; Merri B. Shumway and Helen Benally Lake in District 2; Steven Black, Curtis Yanito and Suzette R. Morris in District 3; Melvin Capitan Jr., Elsie Dee, Billy Todachennie and Lucille Cody in District 4; and Melinda Blackhorse and Nelson A. Yellowman in District 5.
If Navajo voters turn out for the upcoming local election — and vote for their fellow Navajos — it’s probable the county’s prediction will come true and there will be a seismic shift from white Republican to Native Democrat control in the traditionally conservative county.
However, cautioned Katherine Belzowski, a Navajo Nation Department of Justice attorney who worked on the case, it’s not a done deal.
“It’s important to note this decision is just on the county’s motion to stay,” she said. “We still have to argue the case on its merits at the appeal hearing. But we’re encouraged by the language of the decision that the 10th Circuit is viewing the case as we’re viewing it, which is that the county’s arguments don’t have merit.”
Although both sides agree the appeal probably won’t be heard until the fall, “It is possible from the briefing schedule the court could prioritize this case and we could get a ruling before November, which if the county is successful, could mean the 2018 elections will be held according to the old districts,” Belzowski acknowledged.
But the fact that so many Navajo candidates have already filed “certainly seems to indicate the ruling has encouraged them, and at this time it appears to have really opened up the possibility of new leadership,” she said.
Belzowski said the Nation has already sponsored some candidate training sessions and plans to hold more, in addition to voter education.