The boundaries of election districts in a southeastern Utah county are unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians who make up roughly half the county’s population, a federal judge has ruled for the second time.
San Juan County, a roughly 7,800-square-mile county that touches Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, was ordered last year to redraw its county commission and school board election districts after U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that they were unconstitutional.
Last week, Shelby ruled that the county’s new maps are still unconstitutional and primarily drawn on race.
From the district court’s opinion:
The record establishes that San Juan County predominated racial considerations over other traditional districting criteria when drawing its County Commission Districts 1 and 2 and School Board District 3, and it did so without providing any reason to think it would violate the Voting Rights Act if it simply drew districts based on race-neutral factors. To the contrary, it did so even while maintaining there was no Section 2 issue that required it to take race into account in redistricting. This runs afoul of Supreme Court pronouncements against racial classifications in drawing voting districts. The court thus concludes School Board District 3 and County Commission Districts 1 and 2 in the County’s proposed remedial plans are unconstitutional. For this reason, the court cannot accept the County’s proposed plans.
The court must now consider how best to proceed to the adoption of remedial election districts. The court previously stated it would evaluate Navajo Nation’s proposed redistricting plans if the County’s plans failed.161 The court indicated that if it reached the Navajo Nation’s plans, and if they were legally sound, the court likely would enter its plans as a final order.162 Having considered the issue more carefully in the time that has passed since its earlier Order, the court no longer believes such an approach would lead to a satisfactory result.The Supreme Court has cautioned, “redistricting and reapportioning legislative bodies is a legislative task which the federal courts should make every effort not to pre-empt.”163 The Court also instructs district courts to “undertake an ‘equitable weighing process’ to select a fitting remedy for the legal violations it has identified, taking account of ‘what is necessary, what is fair, and what is workable.’ ”164 Heeding this guidance, the court here attempted to avoid a result in which voting districts were drawn by anyone other than the elected representatives in the County. That attempt failed and the court must now become involved.*19 Drawing new election districts in San Juan County is an especially sensitive task given the County’s demographics; its residents’ legitimate, competing, and important interests implicated by redistricting; and its complicated voting rights history. In view of this reality, the court believes adopting Navajo Nation’s proposed redistricting plans—the product of an adversarial, litigation-driven process—could jeopardize, and possibly undermine confidence in, the legitimacy of the County’s new legislative districts. Taking account of “what is necessary, what is fair, and what is workable” given the circumstances of this case, the court concludes the new districts must be a product of an independent, neutral process, with ample opportunity for participation and feedback from the parties.
For these reasons, the court declines to evaluate the proposed remedial plans submitted by Navajo Nation. It will instead appoint a special master to assist the court in formulating lawful remedial districts. The court will schedule a status conference to solicit input from the parties regarding this process.