Nation v. San Juan Cnty.
|19 February 2016
|Case No. 2:12-cv-00039-RJS-DPB
|Navajo Nation, a federally recognized Indian tribe, et al., Plaintiffs, v. San Juan County, a Utah governmental subdivision, Defendant.
|U.S. District Court — District of Utah
Eric P. Swenson, Salt Lake City, UT, Katherine Belzowski, D. Harrison Tsosie, Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Window Rock, AZ, Steven C. Boos, Maynes Bradford Shipps & Sheftel, Maya Leonard Kane, Durango, CO, for Plaintiffs.
Britton R. Butterfield, Carl F. Huefner, Jesse C. Trentadue, Suitter Axland, Salt Lake City, UT, for Defendant.
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
ROBERT J. SHELBY, United States District Judge
This case is about voting rights and the election districts in San Juan County, Utah. Plaintiffs are Navajo Nation—a federally recognized Indian tribe—and several individual Tribe members.1 Navajo Nation sued the County shortly after the County Commission redistricted in 2011, and directs two of its four claims for relief to the County's three Commission election districts.2 Navajo Nation alleges in its first
claim for relief that the County Commission's 2011 redistricting and its present three districts violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.3 It asserts in its second claim for relief that the same election districts violate § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment on Navajo Nation's first claim.4 The court heard argument on these motions on January 7, 2016.
In its motion, the County argues that both the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment theories Navajo Nation sets forth in its first claim for relief fail.5 Navajo Nation limits its cross-motion for summary judgment to its Equal Protection theory, contending that the County's Commission districts are unconstitutionally drawn based on race.6 Navajo Nation points specifically to the Commission's District Three, which the County established in 1986 to be majority Native American in the wake of a lawsuit brought against it by the United States Department of Justice. The District Three boundaries remain unchanged since they were drawn three decades ago. Navajo Nation claims that the County Commission relied on race in its decision to maintain the District Three boundaries as part of the County's redistricting in 2011. Navajo Nation urges the court to conclude under the strict scrutiny analysis that must follow that the County's race-based decision-making was not narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest, and is thus unconstitutional in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
San Juan County responds that it had a compelling government interest in maintaining the decades-old District Three boundaries when it redistricted in 2011. It contends that it was legally required to do so to comply with the terms of a Consent Decree and a Settlement and Order entered when the County resolved the Department of Justice lawsuit against it in the 1980s.
As discussed below, the court finds that the County's position is unsupported by the language of the Consent Decree and Settlement and Order. These documents did not require the County to draw and maintain—in perpetuity—the 1986 District Three boundaries. The court concludes that the County lacks a compelling government interest in its racially-motivated districting decisions. As drawn in 1986 and maintained in 2011, the County's Commission Districts violate the Equal Protection Clause and are unconstitutional. The court therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Navajo Nation, and denies the County's cross-motion.
To provide context for Navajo Nation's claim, the court traces in two parts the development of the County's current Commission election districts. First, the court discusses the 1980s litigation that transitioned the County Commission elections from an at-large system to single-member districts. Next, the court discusses the developments in the County since the 1980s, including the 2011 redistricting that created the current election districts at issue in this case.
I. The Establishment of San Juan County's Single-Member Districts
San Juan County is geographically Utah's largest county, occupying a “tremendous area” in the southeastern portion of the State.7 For most of the County's history, voters elected each of the three commissioners through an at-large system of voting. Since 1986, however, the County's voters have selected their commissioners from three single-member election districts. San Juan County is the only county in Utah with a commission elected by this method.8 The County transitioned from an at-large system to single-member districts because of the Department of Justice litigation that occurred in the 1980s. The court discusses this litigation now because San Juan County asserts that it has a compelling government interest in complying with the Consent Decree and Settlement and Order resulting from this litigation. The County contends that these documents require it to maintain the boundaries established in 1986 for one of its districts, District Three.
In the early 1980s, San Juan County used an at-large voting system, as many state and local governments have done throughout American history.9 The County also had a substantial Native American population, but seemed never to elect Native American representatives.10 In 1983, the Department of Justice sued the County in this court, arguing that the existing system of at-large elections denied Native American citizens in the County “an equal opportunity to participate in the County political process and to elect candidates of their choice to the San Juan County Board of Commissioners.”11 The Department of Justice pursued its claim under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act.12 Section 2, as amended in 1982, prohibits “legislation that result[s] in the dilution of a minority group's voting strength, regardless of the legislature's intent.”13
The Department of Justice's claim that San Juan County's at-large system violated § 2 of the Voting Rights Act was not unique. As amended,14 § 2 of the Voting Rights Act “spawned a torrent of litigation that has dramatically reshaped the American electoral landscape.”15 Typically, plaintiffs bringing § 2 claims challenging at-large systems sought to have future elections conducted with single-member seats. Indeed, “single-member districts were historically chosen over at-large schemes precisely to afford electoral minorities a chance to affect the political process.”16
For this reason, successful vote dilution claims were remedied by replacing at-large districts “with a single-member districting plan that gave minority voters a majority in one or more districts.”17
In addition to its § 2 claim, the Department of Justice brought claims against the County under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In arguing that the County's system of at-large voting impaired the ability of a Native American minority population to elect representatives of their choosing, the Department's apparent goal was to compel the County to move away from at-large voting and toward the establishment of single-member districts—the classic § 2 remedy.18
The court did not adjudicate these claims on their merits. Instead, the Department of Justice and the County settled their dispute in a Consent Decree. Under the Consent Decree, the County was permanently enjoined from “[a]ny action or conduct which abridges or denies the right to vote of the Indian citizens of San Juan County” or “[a]pplying a voting standard, practice, or procedure which abridges the right of the Indian citizens of San Juan County to vote on the basis of race or color.”19
In the Consent Decree, the County also agreed to devise a plan to elect its Commission from single-member districts.20 The Consent Decree placed initial responsibility for redistricting in a special advisory committee. The committee was tasked with submitting one or more plans to the County Commission with districts drawn along existing precinct or census boundaries. The districts were to be “compact, contiguous, as equal in population as possible ... [and which] shall not split or fragment geographic concentration of minorities.”21 The Consent Decree did not set the number of districts to be established in these plans. It did, however, provide that the redistricting plans the advisory committee submitted to the Commission could involve either “three or five single-member county commissioner districts.”22 In keeping with this guidance, the Consent Decree itself did not establish any districts. The parties then jointly petitioned this court to endorse the Consent Decree.
In response to the parties' request, Judge David Winder entered an Agreed Settlement and Order.23 This stipulated Settlement and Order stated that “the “process leading to the selection of County Commissioners”—the existing at-large system—“fails to comply fully with the...
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...Juan Cty., No. 2:12-cv-00039, 2017 WL 3016782 (D. Utah July 14, 2017) (also available at dkt. 397); Navajo Nation v. San Juan Cty., 162 F. Supp. 3d 1162 (D. Utah 2016) (also available at dkt. 312); Nation v. San Juan Cty., 150 F. Supp. 3d 1253 (D. Utah 2015) (also available at dkt. 280). 5.......