San Juan County agrees to $2.6 million settlement for attorney fees for seven-year voting rights/redistricting case
San Juan County will pay $2.6 million in legal fees to make a settlement in the massive voting rights lawsuit between the county and the Navajo Nation. The settlement was approved at a special meeting of the San Juan County Commission on September 24.
The $2.6 million is for the Navajo Nation attorney fees. It is above and beyond the estimated $1.5 million the county paid to its own attorneys for the lawsuit. There were also additional costs to the county during the lawsuit.
The settlement was approved after a lengthy mediation in the past week with the plaintiffs and a US District Court Magistrate Judge. The court-ordered mediation followed a series of federal district and appellate court rulings in the Navajo Nation’s favor. The most recent order from the Tenth Circuit was for the county to pay the plaintiff’s additional fees accrued which were accrued during the appeal of the district court ruling.
The Navajo Nation attorneys requested $3.4 million in fees. The parties settled at $2.6 million to be paid over eight years.
The payments include a one-time payment of $1.3 million in 2020. The remainder of the payments will spread out over the remaining seven years. The payments will be $200,000 a year, with a final $100,000 payment on January 31, 2027.
If the parties had not reached a settlement, the federal district court would have imposed a unilateral decision later this month.
According to a county press release, the settlement gives the county the opportunity to plan out its payments over time and to avoid the potential for a larger award.
“This brings a difficult chapter in San Juan County’s history to a close,” said Commission Chair Kenneth Maryboy. “It is time to move forward and stay focused on the business of running this county.”
Maryboy added, “My goal now is to have this settlement affect San Juan County’s residents as little as possible as we figure out how to best manage this obligation over the next few years.”
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2012, alleging that the voting districts in San Juan County violated the US Constitution and Voting Rights Acts. The districts were initially set up in the 1980s after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a legal action.
Since then, there had never been more than one Native American on the county commission, even though 50.4 percent of county residents were Native American in the 2010 Census.
After several years of discussion and action, Federal Judge Robert Shelby ruled against San Juan County in December 2017.
Subsequently, a “Special Master” was hired to draw the boundaries of new voting districts. In the 2018 general election, Native Americans Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes were elected, creating the first Native American majority on a San Juan County Commission.
In recent years, San Juan County has accrued millions of dollars in legal fees, including legal battles over voting rights, vote by mail, Bears Ears National Monument, and Recapture Canyon road rights.
These legal battles have contributed to a drop in the general fund balance of the county. The general fund has dropped from $10 million in 2014 to $2.5 million by the end of 2018.
The county still holds approximately $35 million in fund balances.