Judge blocks reopening of election lawsuit
by Bill Boyle, San Juan Record Editor
At a court hearing on July 2, Federal Judge Robert Shelby summarily rejected a motion to reopen the contentious voting district lawsuit, with a lecture to attorneys to work together to solve problems rather than running to the federal court when challenges arise.
An obviously frustrated judge opened the hearing by suggesting that he would reject the motion outright and challenged the attorneys who filed the motion to convince him otherwise.
They clearly failed.
The ruling vindicated the efforts by San Juan County to implement the complicated new voting districts.
Attorneys for six San Juan County residents had filed a motion on June 12 arguing that San Juan County had failed to implement changes to the election districts for the San Juan County Commission and the San Juan School District.
The motion suggested that up to 2,000 voters in the county had been assigned to a wrong voting district.
The motion said the county should be held in contempt and asked that the June 26 Primary Election be delayed (“enjoined”).
The election was held as planned, with more than 3,031 voters casting their votes. In contrast, 2,188 voters participated in the 2016 primary election, 1,017 in 2014, and 928 in 2012.
Judge Shelby mentioned several times that the clerk is very busy during an election of this type and suggested that San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson had better things to do than worry about the motion.
Nielson said the June 26 election went well, despite the numerous challenges associated with implementing the changes to voting boundaries.
“Considering the complexity of the primary and the new boundaries, I thought it went well,” said Nielson. “Voter turnout was high.”
Nielson also expressed appreciation that his office and staff were able to stay focused on conducting the election rather than being distracted by the filing.
The January, 2018 court order completely redrew the voting district boundaries for the three commission districts and the five school board districts.
The job of adjusting the new boundaries is complicated by the fact that approximately two-thirds of San Juan County residents live outside of incorporated areas and thousands do not have traditional street addresses.
The Clerk’s office matched the address description and GPS coordinates to the voting precinct as much as possible, but acknowledged that there were several instances where the initial assignment of the precinct may have been wrong.
The Clerk’s office said they worked hard to adjust the precinct assignment immediately if they were made aware of a problem.
Judge Shelby said that it appeared to be no instances that the clerk did not make needed changes and added that the county was “pretty vigorous” in implementing the changes.
Shelby expressed frustration that several known discrepancies in the precinct assignments were not reported to the Clerk’s office, but seemed to have been saved for the legal challenge.
The attorneys refused to give names of the potentially affected voters so that the county could correct the alleged errors.
Steven Boos, lead attorney for the six San Juan County residents who filed the motion, stated that they did not report the problems to the Clerk’s office because they feared that the county would “go after them” like they did Willie Grayeyes.
Grayeyes, a candidate for Commission, was removed from the ballot in April after Nielson determined he was not a resident of San Juan County.
The initial filing suggested that up to 2,000 Native American voters had been assigned to the wrong precinct. San Juan County called the suggestion “nonsense” and countered that there were a handful of discrepancies, but that the “number of affected voters is small and that the County Clerk’s office diligently sought to correct problems brought to its attention.”
The county added, “The assignment of voters to election districts is a complex problem in which some inadvertent errors are almost inevitable, even in districts in which all voters have street addresses.”
The Clerk’s office said they remain committed to finding and correcting any mistakes before the general election in November. “Please let us know if there is a mistake in your assignment,” said Nielson.
The county said that there were about 80 errors in the initial placement of voters in precincts, not the 2,000 Native American ballots that was suggested in the initial filing.
In other comments, Judge Shelby mentioned more than once that he was “disgusted” that several quotes by Commissioners Phil Lyman and Bruce Adams had been taken out of context in the filing.
Shelby also made several comments suggesting that the appropriate venue to address election issues such as these is through the state courts rather than the federal courts.
Willie Grayeyes has filed a legal challenge to his removal from the ballot in federal court.
Another issue that complicated the hearing is that Boos has been removed as legal counsel for the Navajo Nation in the initial lawsuit.
A representative from the Navajo Nation was at the July 2 hearing, but made no comment on the motion. Boos still represents the six local defendants in the initial lawsuit.
The overriding result of the hearing was a federal judge castigating attorneys for trying to reopen the case and imploring the legal teams on both sides to work out any differences.
“I have little doubt that after six years of litigation in this case, there is not a lot of fond feelings and a level of distrust,” said Shelby. “But this process is not helpful in correcting any of that.”
In the ruling on the motion, Shelby denied the motions and said there was “no basis for a finding of contempt.”
In addition, Shelby stated that any further motions would require evidence that the legal teams met in a good faith attempt to address the issues.