The House on Fire Ruin is an ancestral tribal village located in San Juan County, Utah. Photo: John Fowler

Navajo Nation wins decision over voting districts in Utah county

The Navajo Nation has won a major decision in a voting rights case in Utah.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2012, Native Americans represented 50.4 percent of the population in San Juan County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet Native voters were packed into one district, preventing them from asserting greater influence in a county where they are essentially the majority.

Recognizing the disparity, Judge Robert J. Shelby ordered the county to draw a new map for its districts. The decision was a complete victory for the tribe and the tribal members who served as plaintiffs.

"Because Navajo Nation has successfully shown that the county had race-based motives in maintaining the boundaries of District Three, and the county has failed to show that its plan for District Three was in pursuit of a compelling government interest, the court concludes that District Three is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and the boundary lines for the San Juan County Commission Districts must be redrawn," Shelby wrote in the 33-page ruling.

According to the decision, Native Americans represent 92.81 percent of the population in District Three. Although some Native Americans live in District One and District Two, they are outnumbered by non-Natives.

Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, serves on the San Juan County Commission. She is the only Native person on the governing body despite the county's large Native population. Photo: RebeccaMBenally

As a result, while Native voters in District Three have consistently elected a Native candidate since 1986, voters in District One and District Two have "invariably returned a white commissioner," Shelby noted.

The Native population in the county fell to 46.6 percent in 2014, according to the Census Bureau. But redrawing the county map could still increase Native representation on the commission, whose chairman, Phil Lyman, is a non-Native who has who has been convicted of leading an illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon, an area that's home to ancestral tribal villages and archaeological resources.

Lyman was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation, The Deseret News reported in December. Incidentally, the illegal ride was promoted by the Bundy family and Ryan Bundy, who has been indicted with an illegal occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, participated in the May 2014 incident.

The other two commissioners are Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, and Bruce Adams, who is non-Native.

The commission's non-Native majority has been cited as one of the reasons why Republican lawmakers in Congress won't support the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. Both Lyman and Adams are Republicans but an overwhelming majority of voters in the county have supported protections for the land. Benally also has voted in support of protections when the issue has come before the commission.

"Some officials are misinforming the public by stating that the proposal is not supported at the local level and this could not be further from the truth," Navajo Nation Council Delegate Herman Daniels, Jr., said last October. Daniels and his colleagues also note that six of the seven Navajo chapters in Utah support the monument designation.

The Navajo Nation was represented by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice and outside attorneys in the voting rights case. Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch credited the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and its executive director, Leonard Gorman, with helping push the issue to the forefront.

"The leadership of Leonard Gorman and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission was critical in initiating and pursuing this claim to ensure the fair and equal treatment of the Navajo residents of San Juan County, Branch said in a press release. "Their work should be commended."

Join the Conversation