In its ruling, the appeals court upheld the Utah District Court’s decision that San Juan County had violated the constitutional rights of residents in drawing gerrymandered voting districts, as originally reported in the Salt Lake Tribune.
The court affirmed the redrawn San Juan County districts that were created by Federal Judge Robert Shelby in 2017 as a culmination of a multiyear voting rights lawsuit between the Navajo Nation and the county.
After Judge Shelby sided with the Navajo Nation in 2017, he appointed a special master to draw new districts, at which time San Juan County appealed the case to the Tenth Circuit in Denver.
The appeals court earlier declined an injunction sought by the county that would have stopped a court-ordered special election last November under the new voting boundaries.
In the November election, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both Democrats, were elected to the first ever Navajo-majority Commission along with incumbent Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican.
In its unanimous decision, the Tenth Circuit Court rejected all five objections the county made to Shelby’s 2017 ruling in its appeal. Writing for the court, Judge Nancy Moritz said, “We find no error in the district court’s well-reasoned rulings.”
Under the new districts, Native American voters hold a strong majority in two of the three Commission districts and in three of the five school board voting districts. Until this year, Native Americans had never held more than one Commission seat or two school board seats.
Judge Moritz added that San Juan County violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act when it drew previous voting districts that packed most Navajo residents into a single district.
Barring further appeal, the case now goes back to district court, where Shelby will rule on whether the county will be forced to pay over $3 million in attorney fees requested by the Navajo Nation under Voting Rights Act provisions.