San Juan Co. ordered to redraw boundaries in gerrymandering lawsuit

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge has ordered San Juan County to redraw political boundaries, following a lawsuit by the Navajo Nation alleging racial gerrymandering.

In a ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby rejected proposed boundaries made by San Juan County for county commission and school board.

"San Juan County’s remedial plans fail to pass constitutional muster. Specifically, the court concludes race was the predominant factor in the development of District 3 of the School Board plan and Districts 1 and 2 of the County Commission plan," he wrote.

San Juan County is Utah's largest county, more than 7,000 square miles in size. The population is about 16,000 according to 2016 U.S. Census estimates. Native Americans make up about 50% of the population compared to 47% of whites.

The Navajo Nation sued San Juan County in 2012, alleging county leaders gerrymandered along racial lines. "Gerrymandering" is the practice of manipulating political boundaries to favor one side.

In a statement, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch accused San Juan County Commissioners of operating under unconstitutional election boundaries for 10 years.

"It is extremely disappointing that San Juan County continues to draw its political boundaries in violation of federal law and in a manner to suppress the Navajo voice. The County should use the same energy it puts into maintaining gerrymandered districts into crafting an equitable and fair remedy that gives all citizens of San Juan County an equal voice," she said.

In ordering the boundaries redrawn, Judge Shelby said he would appoint an independent monitor after rejecting the Navajo Nation's proposed boundaries. He said those proposals were the product of litigation.

In a statement to FOX 13, County Commissioners Bruce Adams, Phil Lyman and Rebecca Benally said an independent monitor was what they wanted, too.

"Quality education for all of the children in San Juan is our top priority. We are looking forward to finally resolving this issue. The judge's ruling on Friday was what we asked for two years ago, him to appoint an unbiased master overseer of the boundary re-drawing. This will allow for all members of the county to have equal say in this important project," they wrote.

In previous court filings, lawyers for San Juan County opposed a special master to oversee redrawing boundaries calling it "neither warranted nor needed in this matter."  The judge in a May 2016 order declined to appoint one, citing their objections.

It's the second lawsuit San Juan County is facing over Navajo voting issues. The American Civil Liberties Union is in the midst of a legal challenge over the county's decision to conduct vote by mail elections there.

Navajo is an unwritten language and ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia said San Juan County's decision to move to vote by mail excludes a large portion of voters from participating in elections. There are limited polling places and limited people available to provide translation services.

"You cannot provide unequal voting opportunities based on race," he said. "From our perspective, switching to vote by mail only created that problem."

A judge has scheduled a hearing next week on motions by both the ACLU and San Juan County for summary judgment.

Read the judge's ruling here: