Laws v. Grayeyes

Citation498 P.3d 410
Decision Date30 September 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20190088,20190088
Parties Kelly LAWS, Appellant, v. Willie GRAYEYES, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

Peter Stirba, Valerie Wilde, Matthew Strout, Ciera Archuleta, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Steven C. Boos, Durango, CO, David Irvine, Eric P. Swenson, Alan L. Smith, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Petersen joined.

Chief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court:


¶1 Willie Grayeyes declared in March 2018 that he would run for the office of San Juan County Commissioner. To prove to the county clerk that he was a county resident, and therefore eligible to run for county office, Grayeyes provided coordinates and satellite images for his place of residence in San Juan County.

¶2 At this time, Kelly Laws, who was also running for county commissioner, had reason to believe that Grayeyes did not live at the coordinates he provided with his declaration of candidacy. But rather than raise his concerns then, Laws waited until after Grayeyes won the election.

¶3 Laws filed a challenge shortly after the election. The Seventh District Court concluded that Laws had waited too long to raise his concerns about Grayeyes's residency. But the court nevertheless addressed the merits, concluding that Grayeyes was a resident of San Juan County, and declined to overturn the results of the election.

¶4 On appeal, we conclude that Laws lacked standing to file suit in the first place because he has not alleged a sufficiently particularized injury. Accordingly, we dismiss Laws's claim for lack of jurisdiction. We also affirm the district court's rejection of Grayeyes's cross-appeal for attorney fees.


¶5 Grayeyes declared in March 2018 that he would run as a candidate for the office of San Juan County Commissioner. He filed his declaration with the county clerk, affirming that he resided in San Juan County and providing coordinates and satellite images for a place of residence on Navajo Mountain.1

¶6 That same month, Wendy Black, who is not a party to this case, challenged Grayeyes's candidacy under Utah Code section 20A-9-202, claiming that he was not actually a San Juan County resident. The county clerk asked the Sheriff's Department to investigate the concerns raised in Black's candidacy challenge. Sheriff Turk went to Navajo Mountain and tried to locate Grayeyes's residence. He interviewed people there and discovered that someone else lived in the house at the coordinates Grayeyes had provided to the county clerk. The clerk consequently removed Grayeyes from the ballot.

¶7 Shortly thereafter, Grayeyes appealed the clerk's decision in federal district court. That court concluded the clerk had acted outside of his authority by initiating an investigation into Grayeyes's residency rather than relying solely on the information included with Black's candidacy challenge as required by statute. So, in August 2018, the federal district court issued an injunction requiring San Juan County to place Grayeyes's name back on the ballot. But the federal district court ultimately did not resolve Black's concerns about Grayeyes's residency on the merits, instead dismissing her candidacy challenge for other reasons.2

¶8 Laws knew about Black's candidacy challenge by March 2018 but chose not to file his own challenge at that time. Instead, Laws relied on Black's challenge to resolve any concerns he had about Grayeyes's candidacy. In fact, Laws waited until after Grayeyes defeated him in the election to raise his concerns.

¶9 On November 6, 2018, Grayeyes won the election for county commissioner. Within forty days of the official canvass, as required by Utah Code section 20A-4-403, Laws filed a complaint challenging Grayeyes's eligibility to run for and serve in that office.

¶10 The Seventh District Judicial Court held a bench trial in January 2019. Grayeyes submitted a motion to dismiss Laws's complaint for lack of standing a few days before the trial, but the district court never ruled on the motion.3 Both Laws and Grayeyes presented evidence and called witnesses to testify regarding Grayeyes's residency.

¶11 Laws submitted the report Sheriff Turk had prepared regarding his investigation of Grayeyes's residency on Navajo Mountain in response to Black's March 2018 challenge to Grayeyes's residency. The court admitted Sheriff Turk's testimony about what he saw, the notes and photographs he took at the time, and a videotape of an interview with Grayeyes. But the court excluded body cam footage of Sheriff Turk's interviews with people he met while on Navajo Mountain as inadmissible hearsay. These interviews corroborated Sheriff Turk's discovery that someone else lived in the house at the coordinates Grayeyes submitted with his declaration of candidacy.

¶12 Laws also presented evidence tying Grayeyes to Arizona. Laws established that Grayeyes had an Arizona driver's license, owned an uninhabitable mobile home in Page, Arizona, picked up his mail from an Arizona post office, often bought groceries in Arizona, and sometimes stayed with a girlfriend in Tuba City, Arizona.

¶13 To counter these facts, Grayeyes presented evidence regarding Navajo cultural practices tying him to San Juan County, including the practice of burying a child's umbilical cord at his spiritual home. Grayeyes's umbilical cord is buried on Paiute Mesa, he was raised there, and his family considers the area their place of origin. Grayeyes also demonstrated that he had spent much of his life representing Navajo Mountain in tribal politics and was employed by the Navajo Mountain Chapter of the Navajo Nation at the time of trial.

¶14 Grayeyes did not dispute the fact that he owns a mobile home in Page, Arizona and sometimes stays with his girlfriend in Tuba City, Arizona. But he presented evidence that he spends about sixty to eighty percent of his time on Navajo Mountain, staying in a shade hut, with his sister, or at his daughter's cabin.

¶15 Witness testimony showed that Grayeyes never made the mobile home in Arizona his general residence. He and his wife bought the mobile home so their children could attend public school in Arizona. Grayeyes's wife stayed with their children there until she passed away in 1987. During that time, however, Grayeyes remained at Navajo Mountain to run cattle and stay involved in tribal politics. Apart from staying at the mobile home for the duration of one school year, Grayeyes never lived there as a permanent resident.

¶16 Considering this evidence, the district court "ha[d] no problem concluding that Grayeyes maintain[ed] his principal place of residence in San Juan County." The court found that Grayeyes spends a majority of his time in San Juan County, has consistently lived there throughout his life, and has deep political and cultural connections to the area. The court further found that Laws never credibly refuted these facts at trial.

¶17 The court was not persuaded by the evidence tying Grayeyes to Arizona. It found that "all of the other Utah residents at Navajo Mountain/Paiute Mesa" buy groceries and access critical services in Arizona "as a matter of convenience."

¶18 The court also noted that in making this determination, it was rejecting Laws's contention at trial "that a particular house is required for a person to have a principal place of residence." In the court's view, "the ‘single location where a person's habitation is fixed’ could mean a larger geographical area and include various places," and so long as Grayeyes's shade hut, his sister's house, and his daughter's cabin fell within a single voting precinct, "that geographical area is sufficient to be a principal place of residence." The court therefore concluded that Grayeyes was a San Juan County resident and thus eligible to serve as county commissioner.

¶19 Following trial, Grayeyes filed an application for attorney fees, which the court rejected, concluding that Laws had filed his complaint in good faith. In the court's view, Laws had presented a legitimate dispute regarding Grayeyes's residency but ultimately lost on the merits. The court also rejected Grayeyes's assertion that he was entitled to attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine. The court held that the private attorney general doctrine had been disavowed by the legislature, but that, regardless, general principles of equity and justice did not justify an award of fees in the case of "a straightforward election challenge authorized by statute."

¶20 Laws appealed the trial court's decision, claiming that the court erred in concluding that Grayeyes was a San Juan County resident. Grayeyes filed a cross appeal, arguing that Laws lacked standing to file his election challenge and that the court erred in declining to award him attorney fees.

Standard of Review

¶21 Whether Laws has standing to file an election challenge is a mixed question of law and fact. For mixed questions, we uphold the trial court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous, and we review the court's ultimate conclusion for correctness.4

¶22 "The standard of review on appeal of a trial court's award of attorney fees is patent error or clear abuse of discretion."5 But because Grayeyes challenges the constitutionality of two statutes on which the district court relied to reach its decision, we review the court's interpretation of those statutes for correctness.6


¶23 Both parties raise multiple issues on appeal. We first address Grayeyes's argument that Laws lacks standing to challenge his election because Laws has not met the traditional standing requirements. Laws argues that statutory standing should be enough on its own. We do not address this argument, however, because it is inadequately briefed. In the alternative, Laws argues he has met the requirements for traditional standing. We disagree. Laws has not alleged a sufficiently particularized injury. Because we conclude that Laws has not met the requirements for...

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