Navajo Nation Human Rights Comm'n v. San Juan Cnty., Case No. 2:16–cv–00154–JNP–BCW

CourtUnited States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Utah
Citation215 F.Supp.3d 1201
Docket NumberCase No. 2:16–cv–00154–JNP–BCW
Parties NAVAJO NATION HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION; Peggy Phillips; Mark Maryboy; Wilfred Jones ; Terry Whitehat; Betty Billie Farley; Willie Skow; and Mabel Skow, Plaintiffs, v. SAN JUAN COUNTY; John David Nelson; in his official capacity as San Juan County Clerk; and Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams, and Rebecca Benally, in their official capacities as San Juan County Commissioners, Defendants.
Decision Date14 October 2016

Arusha Gordon, Ezra D. Rosenberg, Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, Washington, DC, John M. Mejia, Leah M. Farrell, ACLU of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, Lauren Marie Wilchek, Patrick Castaneda, Raymond M. Williams, DLA Piper US LLP, Philadelphia, PA, M. Laughlin McDonald, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Atlanta, GA, Maya L. Kane, Kane Law LLC, Durango, CO, William A. Rudnick, DLA Piper US LLP, Chicago, IL, M. Eileen O'Connor, pro hac vice, for Plaintiffs.

Britton R. Butterfield, Carl F. Huefner, Jesse C. Trentadue, Suitter Axland, Salt Lake City, UT, for Defendants.


Jill N. Parrish, United States District Court Judge

Before the court is a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by Plaintiffs Navajo Human Rights Commission, Peggy Phillips, Mark Maryboy, Wilfred Jones, Terry Whitehat, Betty Billie Farley, Willie Skow, and Mabel Skow against Defendants San Juan County, John David Nelson, Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams, and Rebecca Benally. Plaintiffs allege that San Juan County's voting procedures violate the Voting Rights Act. Plaintiffs now bring this Motion, requesting that the court require the County to implement new voting procedures before the November 2016 general election.


San Juan County is a sparsely populated and geographically vast political subdivision of the State of Utah, occupying the state's southeastern corner. The County's southern boundaries encompass a large section of the federally established Navajo Reservation. As a result, approximately half of the County's residents are members of the Navajo Nation, a federally recognized Indian tribe. Most of the County's Navajo residents live within the boundaries of the Reservation. Much of the rest of the County's residents are centralized in the northern half of the County. This geographic segregation has often resulted in significant political tension between Navajo and white residents, which has played out in numerous cases before this court. See, e.g. , Navajo Nation v. San Juan Cty. , 162 F.Supp.3d 1162 (D. Utah 2016) (addressing voting rights and election districts in San Juan County).

This motion for preliminary injunction comes before the court in the context of a lawsuit initiated by the Navajo Human Rights Commission and several named plaintiffs1 who allege that the voting procedures in place in San Juan County violate the Voting Rights Act. The voting procedures at issue here span several years of elections. Prior to 2014, the County conducted elections through nine polling places open on Election Day. Each polling place provided some form of language assistance to Navajo-speaking voters. In 2014, the County transitioned to a predominantly mail-in voting system, leaving a single physical polling location operating at the County Clerk's office in Monticello, Utah. Ballots were distributed to voters through available mailing addresses approximately one month prior to Election Day. This system was in place for the 2014 election cycle.

During 2014 and early in 2015, the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Human Rights Commission officially opposed the mail-in system, asserting that the closure of polling locations and switch to mailed ballots burdened rural Navajo voters. The County acknowledged the opposition, but indicated that it would continue to utilize the mail-in system for upcoming elections. Sometime thereafter, the Commission contacted the United States Department of Justice's Voting Rights Section (the "DOJ"), requesting an evaluation of the County's mail-in voting system.2 In October of 2015, a DOJ representative met with both Commission and County officials and inspected the voting procedures then in place. Evidently, the DOJ did not come to any definitive conclusions regarding the mail-in voting system or the Commission's concerns.

After some unfruitful back-and-forth between the County and various civil-liberties organizations opposed to the mail-in ballot system, the Commission filed the Complaint underlying this Motion on February 25, 2016, alleging that the mail-in ballot system violated the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Docket No. 2). Shortly thereafter, Defendants filed their Answer, which asserted that the County was making significant changes to its election procedures in anticipation of the June 2016 primary elections.3 (Docket No. 41 at 3–4). For the June 2016 elections, the County maintained the predominantly mail-in voting system, but also opened three physical polling locations on the Navajo Reservation and provided language assistance to voters through Navajo-speakingtranslators on Election Day. On August 3, 2016, Plaintiffs filed this Motion for Preliminary Injunction, asserting that whether the County employed the 2014 mail-in voting system or the June 2016 procedures, the elections to be held in November 2016 would violate Sections 2 and 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Defendants filed a Memorandum in Opposition to the Motion on August 31, 2016. Plaintiffs filed a reply on September 19, 2016. Oral argument was held on September 21, 2016. The court has jurisdiction over this matter under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1333, 1343(a)(4), and 52 U.S.C. § 10308(f).


Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the issuance of preliminary injunctions. Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(a)(1). Before a preliminary injunction may be issued, the requesting party must demonstrate

(1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case; (2) irreparable injury to the [requesting party] if the preliminary injunction is denied; (3) the threatened injury to the [requesting party] outweighs the injury to the other party under the the preliminary injunction; and (4) the injunction is not adverse to the public interest.

Kikumura v. Hurley , 242 F.3d 950, 955 (10th Cir. 2001). Moreover, "[i]t is the movant's burden to establish that each of these factors tips in his or her favor." Heideman v. S. Salt Lake City , 348 F.3d 1182, 1189 (10th Cir. 2003). Indeed, "a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, one that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing , carries the burden of persuasion." O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Ashcroft , 389 F.3d 973, 976 (10th Cir. 2004) (Murphy, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis in original) (quoting Mazurek v. Armstrong , 520 U.S. 968, 972, 117 S.Ct. 1865, 138 L.Ed.2d 162 (1997) ); Kikumura , 242 F.3d at 955 (quoting SCFC ILC, Inc. v. Visa USA, Inc. , 936 F.2d 1096, 1098 (10th Cir. 1991) ) ("Because a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy, the right to relief must be clear and unequivocal." (internal quotations omitted)).

In applying Rule 65, the Tenth Circuit has recognized both (1) a "relaxed" standard and (2) a "heightened" standard. Where a movant establishes that the factors dealing with irreparable injury, the balancing of potential harms, and the potential harm to public interest "tip decidedly in its favor, the 'probability of success requirement' is somewhat relaxed." Heideman , 348 F.3d at 1189 (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis in original). But, where a movant requests an injunction that falls into any one of three "disfavored" categories, the request must satisfy a "heightened" burden. O Centro Espirita , 389 F.3d at 975 (per curiam). This heightened burden applies to any of the following categories:

(1) preliminary injunctions that alter the status quo; (2) mandatory preliminary injunctions; and (3) a preliminary injunction that affords the movant all the relief that it could recover at the conclusion of a full trial on the merits.

Id. These "disfavored" forms of preliminary injunction are deserving of heightened scrutiny because they cut against the traditional purpose of interim relief, which "is merely to preserve the relative positions of the parties until a trial on the merits can be held." See Univ. of Tex. v. Camenisch , 451 U.S. 390, 395, 101 S.Ct. 1830, 68 L.Ed.2d 175 (1981) ; O Centro Espirita , 389 F.3d at 975–76 (per curiam) ("[B]ecause a historically disfavored preliminary injunction operates outside of the normal parameters for interim relief, movants seeking such an injunction ... must make a strong showing both with regard to the likelihood of success on the merits and with regard to the balance of harms, and may not rely on our modified likelihood-of-success-on-the-merits standard."). Moreover, injunctions that alter the status quo are "far more likely to impose untoward costs on the non-moving party." Id. at 980 n.2 (Murphy, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Thus, when evaluating pleas for injunctive relief, a district court "must recognize that any preliminary injunction fitting within one of the disfavored categories must be more closely scrutinized to assure that the exigencies of the case support the granting of a remedy that is extraordinary even in the normal course." Id. at 975 (per curiam). Additionally, where a movant requests injunctive relief that falls into any of the disfavored categories, the "relaxed" standard outlined above is wholly inapplicable. Id. at 976.

Plaintiffs and Defendants differ as to the standard to be applied to this request for preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs assert that the relaxed standard outlined above should be applied, while Defendants argue that the Plaintiffs' request...

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