SALT LAKE CITY — The boundaries of election districts in San Juan County are unconstitutional and violate the rights of Native Americans who make up roughly half the southeastern Utah county's population, a federal judge has ruled for the second time.
San Juan County, covering roughly 7,800 square miles and touching 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.
Shelby said county officials did not explain why they had a compelling government interest to draw districts mainly based on race at the expense of other considerations, such as compact areas and following political boundaries.
The Navajo Nation, which covers parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, filed a lawsuit five years ago challenging the boundaries.
To try to fix the districts, San Juan County created three county commission districts and five school board districts that produced an equal number of "safe" districts with majority white or majority Native American populations, while grouping remaining areas into "leftover" districts.
One "leftover" district included two communities hundreds of miles apart that don't share infrastructure or common interests, Shelby noted. A second was shaped like a horseshoe around another district.
Messages seeking comment from San Juan County commissioners were not returned Thursday.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said in a statement Wednesday that the voice of Native Americans has been suppressed when they are packed into gerrymandered districts.
"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," Branch said.
The Navajo Nation also submitted election maps, but Shelby said in his ruling that he won't consider them because they're the product of "an adversarial, litigation-driven process," and using them could jeopardize confidence in new districts.
Instead, the judge said he would appoint an independent expert to redraw the county commission and school board districts.
The current system of electing commissioners from single-member districts was implemented in the 1980s after the U.S. Department of Justice accused San Juan County of denying Native Americans an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
County officials argued that their new maps tried to create fair, racially proportionate districts that reflect the county's geographic distribution.
The dispute is not the only ongoing election-related controversy between tribal members and white residents in the rural county.
Members of the Navajo Nation sued the county last year over a decision to close polling places and move to a mail-in ballot system.
In the lawsuit pending in federal court, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and several tribal members said the changes denied Navajos the same ability to participate in elections as white voters because postal service on the Navajo Nation is unreliable, not all Navajos can read English, and they'd have to travel more than twice as far as white residents if they wanted to vote in person.