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Navajo Nation v. San Juan County

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 16, 2019

NAVAJO NATION, a federally recognized Indian tribe; LORENA ATENE; TOMMY ROCK; HARRISON HUDGINS, a/k/a Harrison Hutchins; WILFRED JONES; ELSIE BILLIE; HERMAN FARLEY, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
v.
SAN JUAN COUNTY, a Utah governmental subdivision, Defendant-Appellant. CITY OF BLANDING, UTAH, Amicus Curiae.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Utah (D.C. No. 2:12-CV-00039-RJS)

          Jesse C. Trentadue (Carl F. Huefner, Michael W. Homer, and Britton R. Butterfield with him on the briefs), Suitter Axland, PLLC, Salt Lake City, Utah, for defendant-appellant San Juan County.

          Paul Spruhan (Ethel Branch, Attorney General, with him on the brief), Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Window Rock, Arizona, for plaintiff-appellee Navajo Nation.

          Steven Boos, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps & Sheftel, LLP, Durango, Colorado (Maya Kane, Maynes, Bradford, Shipps & Sheftel, LLP, Durango, Colorado, and Eric Swenson, Salt Lake City, Utah, with him on the brief), for plaintiffs-appellees Lorena Atene, Tommy Rock, Harrison Hudgins, Wilfred Jones, Elsie Billie, and Herman Farley.

          R. Blake Hamilton, Durham Jones & Pinegar, P.C., Salt Lake City, Utah, for amicus curiae City of Blanding, Utah.

          Before BRISCOE, MORITZ, and EID, Circuit Judges.

          MORITZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In 2012, the Navajo Nation and several of its individual members (collectively, the Navajo Nation) sued San Juan County, alleging that the election districts for both the school board and the county commission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, 52 U.S.C. §§ 10301-14 (transferred from 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973- 1973o). The district court denied the county's motion to dismiss, found that the election districts violated the Equal Protection Clause, and awarded summary judgment to the Navajo Nation. It later rejected the county's proposed remedial redistricting plan because it concluded the redrawn districts again violated the Equal Protection Clause. The district court then appointed a special master to develop a proposed remedial redistricting plan, directed the county to adopt that remedial plan, and ordered the county to hold special elections based on that plan in November 2018.

         On appeal, the county challenges each of the district court's decisions. For the reasons explained below, we affirm.

         Background

         San Juan County occupies the southeastern corner of Utah. Geographically, it's the largest county in the state. The county seat is Monticello, and the county's largest city is Blanding. Approximately 52% of the county's population is Native American. Most Native American residents live in the southern portion of the county, on the Navajo Nation Reservation; the northern portion of the county contains "most of the non-Hispanic [w]hite population." App. vol. 43, 8420. As of the 2010 census, 14, 746 people lived in the county.

         A three-member county commission governs the county. Until the early 1980s, the county elected its commissioners in at-large elections. But in 1983, the United States sued the county, alleging that the at-large elections violated the Constitution and § 2 of the VRA because they denied Native American residents "an equal opportunity to participate in the [c]ounty political process and to elect candidates of their choice."[1] App. vol. 2, 277. In its complaint, the United States pointed out that although the county had a substantial Native American population, it had never elected a Native American representative to the county commission.[2]

         Rather than going to trial, the county entered into a consent decree with the United States. The district court accepted the parties' agreement and entered a settlement order. The settlement order acknowledged that the county's at-large election system "fail[ed] to comply fully with the requirements of [§] 2 of the [VRA]." Id. at 223. As such, it provided that the county would adopt "fairly drawn single[-]member districts." Id.

         Accordingly, the county established three single-member county-commission districts: Districts 1, 2, and 3. A former county official who helped design the districts "testified that she understood that District [3] 'was to be heavily loaded with Navajo voters.'" App. vol. 49, 9836 (quoting App. vol. 30, 5580). Thus, when the county first created the single-member districts in the 1980s, Native Americans made up 88% of District 3's population. And in the years since the county adopted single-member districts, "the commissioners elected from Districts [1] and [2] have been white, and the commissioners elected from District [3] have been Native American." App. vol. 3, 450. As the district court put it, "[i]n this way, the [c]ounty moved from a system that historically denied representation to a minority group to one that allowed th[e] group greater participation in the political process." App. vol. 49, 9834.

         In 2011, the Navajo Nation asked the county to redraw the county-commission districts in response to the 2010 census. It argued that District 3, which was now over 92% Native American, had "an inordinately large population of Native Americans." App. vol. 3, 450. The county declined to change District 3's boundaries, and it made only a few small changes to Districts 1 and 2 to equalize the population of those districts. In response, the Navajo Nation brought this action against the county in federal district court. The Navajo Nation alleged that the boundaries of the county-commission districts, specifically the boundaries of District 3, were unconstitutionally based on race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

         Additionally, the Navajo Nation challenged the constitutionality of the county's school-board districts. By state law, the school board has "five members, each elected from a single[-]member district." App. vol. 43, 8344; see also Utah Code Ann. § 20A-14-202(1)(a), (h). As of the 2010 census, the total population deviation among the five school-board districts was around 38%. In other words, the districts weren't equally populated; some districts contained substantially more voters than other districts. The Navajo Nation contended that this high population deviation resulted in vote dilution in violation of the Equal Protection Clause's guarantee of one person, one vote. See Avery v. Midland Cty., 390 U.S. 474, 478 (1968) (explaining that right to vote "is infringed when legislators are elected from districts of substantially unequal population").[3]

         The county moved to dismiss the Navajo Nation's claim related to the county-commission districts, arguing that it was an impermissible collateral attack on the 1984 consent decree and settlement order. It also argued that the United States was an indispensable party to any litigation related to the consent decree and settlement order. The district court disagreed and denied the county's motion.[4]

         The parties then cross-moved for summary judgment on the Navajo Nation's two Equal Protection claims: (1) that District 3 of the county-commission districts was unconstitutionally based on race; and (2) that the population deviation among the school-board districts caused unconstitutional (although not race-related) vote dilution. The district court found that both the school-board and county-commission districts violated the Equal Protection Clause and were therefore unconstitutional. Accordingly, it awarded summary judgment to the Navajo Nation on both claims.

         The district court then ordered the county to develop a remedial redistricting plan.[5] See Large v. Fremont Cty., 670 F.3d 1133, 1138 (10th Cir. 2012) (noting that when court declares election districts unconstitutional, it should allow legislature to create new plan). It stated that "it would adopt [the county]'s proposed remedial plan[] if [the plan] cured the identified violations and [was] otherwise legally sound." App. vol. 54, 10825-26; see also Large, 670 F.3d at 1138 (noting that district court should adopt legislature's remedial plan "unless it, too, is challenged and found to violate the Constitution" (quoting Wise v. Lipscomb, 437 U.S. 535, 540 (1978) (plurality opinion))).

         After the county submitted its proposed remedial redistricting plan, the district court found that the remedial plan was also unconstitutional. Specifically, it found that some districts in the remedial plan were based on race and didn't survive strict scrutiny. So the district court rejected the county's plan and appointed a special master. After the special master created several proposed redistricting plans, the district court conducted two public hearings and accepted input from the parties. The special master then drafted a final plan, and the district court ordered the county to adopt it. The district court further ordered the county to hold special elections utilizing the new districts in November 2018.

         The county appeals.

         Analysis

         The county raises five challenges; we examine each in turn. We first address the county's argument that the district court erred in denying its motion to dismiss the Navajo Nation's claim relating to the 2011 county-commission districts. Second, we consider whether the district court erred when it ruled that the county lacked a compelling interest to justify the racially drawn boundaries of county-commission District 3. Third, we review the county's assertion that the district court erred in rejecting the county's justifications for the population deviation in the 1992 school-board districts. Fourth, we ask whether the district court erred in finding that the county's proposed remedial redistricting plan was predominantly based on race and failed to satisfy strict scrutiny. Last, we consider whether, as the county contends, the district court erroneously ordered the county to adopt the special master's remedial redistricting plan.[6]

         I. The County's Motion to Dismiss

         The county first argues that the district court erred in denying its motion to dismiss. In particular, it argues that (1) the 1984 consent decree and settlement order bar the claim related to the county-commission districts because the court that approved the consent decree and entered the settlement order retained jurisdiction over the matter; and (2) the United States, as a party to the consent decree and settlement order, is indispensable to this action. Neither argument succeeds.

         When a court accepts a consent decree and enters an accompanying order, it often retains jurisdiction over the matter. If it does so, other courts necessarily lack subject-matter jurisdiction over suits seeking to modify that decree. See Culbreath v. Dukakis, 630 F.2d 15, 22 (1st Cir. 1980) (noting that "only the district court supervising implementation of the decree will have subject[-]matter jurisdiction to modify the decree"). That typically means parties to a consent decree can't collaterally attack the judgment in a separate action. See Floyd v. Ortiz, 300 F.3d 1223, 1225 n.1 (10th Cir. 2002) (noting that party to consent judgment can't collaterally attack consent judgment); Barfus v. City of Miami, 936 F.2d 1182, 1185 (11th Cir. 1991) (citing cases "holding that a party or privy to a consent decree cannot launch a collateral attack upon the decree").

         And that's what the county urges happened here: it contends that this case is an impermissible collateral attack on the consent decree and settlement order. The district court rejected this subject-matter-jurisdiction argument for two reasons. First, it found that because the Navajo Nation wasn't a party to the consent decree and settlement order, the rule that "parties to a consent decree may not collaterally attack the judgment in a separate action" didn't apply. App. vol. 3, 452. Second, it determined that "the present suit does not address the subject matter of the 1984 [consent decree and settlement order]." Id. at 453. Specifically, the district court noted that the consent decree and settlement order aimed to eliminate at-large elections but said nothing about specific boundary lines or the makeup of any single-member district. And in this case, the Navajo Nation didn't seek to return to at-large elections; instead, it sought to redraw certain boundaries. Thus, the district court concluded that although the court that approved the consent decree and entered the settlement order "retain[ed] jurisdiction for all purposes," this case didn't implicate "th[e] matter" over which jurisdiction was retained. Id. (quoting App. vol. 2, 224).

         On appeal, the county challenges both of these rationales. "We review de novo the district court's denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of subject[-]matter jurisdiction." Opala v. Watt, 454 F.3d 1154, 1156-57 (10th Cir. 2006). The county first contends that the Navajo Nation was a party to the consent decree and settlement order because the United States brought the 1983 lawsuit "on behalf of [the] Navajo Nation." Aplt. Br. 37. But this argument misses the mark because the 1983 complaint plainly states that it was brought "on behalf of the United States of America," not the Navajo Nation. App. vol. 2, 273.

         Resisting this plain language, the county points out that the 1983 complaint identifies 25 U.S.C. § 175 as one of the statutes authorizing the lawsuit. Section 175 provides that "[i]n all [s]tates . . . where there are reservations or allotted Indians[, ] the United States [A]ttorney shall represent them in all suits at law and in equity." Traditionally, Native American litigants invoke this statute when they wish to have the United States Attorney represent their interests in court. See, e.g., Oviatt v. Reynolds, 733 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (10th Cir. 2018) (unpublished) (exercising discretion to deny § 175 motion to appoint United States Attorney); Siniscal v. United States, 208 F.2d 406, 410 (9th Cir. 1953) (holding that § 175 "is not mandatory and that its purpose is no more than to [e]nsure [Native Americans] adequate representation in suits to which they might be parties").

         But the county cites no authority for the proposition that the United States' mere mention of § 175 somehow made the Navajo Nation a party to the 1983 lawsuit or brought the Navajo Nation into privity with the United States. Nor does it point to any fact tending to show that the Navajo Nation invoked § 175 and asked the United States to bring the 1983 lawsuit on its behalf. Indeed, although the 1983 complaint cites § 175, it plainly relies on the VRA as authority for the action. The VRA permits the United States to institute a civil action whenever "any person has engaged or there are reasonable grounds to believe that any person is about to engage in any act or practice which would deprive any other person of" the right to vote. § 10101(c). In line with this authority, the 1983 complaint alleges violations of the VRA and requests relief under the VRA.

         Accordingly, we conclude that the mere reference to § 175 on the first page of the 1983 complaint doesn't establish that the United States acted as a representative of the Navajo Nation in bringing the 1983 lawsuit. Thus, we reject the county's argument that the Navajo Nation was a party to the earlier lawsuit simply because the United States used the VRA to protect the voting rights of Native Americans living in San Juan County. And because the Navajo Nation wasn't a party to the consent decree and settlement order, the collateral-attack doctrine doesn't bar this action. Cf. Floyd, 300 F.3d at 1225 n.1 (prohibiting collateral attack by party or person in privity with party to settlement order).

         The county next argues that the Navajo Nation's suit seeking to redraw the boundaries of the county-commission districts implicates the 1984 consent decree and settlement order because those documents required the United States to approve the county's new single-member districts. The district court found it "reasonable to infer from the record that the [c]ounty presented a final plan to the [United States] before enacting it." App. vol. 49, 9834 n.34. We accept this inference. But the county takes this inference too far, insisting that (1) the county created District 3's boundaries "at the insistence of the" United States, and (2) these boundaries are permanent and can't be changed without involvement and permission of the United States. Aplt. Br. 37.

         Yet we see no support for these additional inferences in the record. Even if the United States approved the original single-member district boundaries, nothing in the 1984 consent decree and settlement order prohibits the county from altering those boundaries over time. The record does indicate that one county official testified that she believed the consent decree and settlement order (1) established District 3's boundaries such that the district would be packed with Navajo voters and (2) locked those boundaries. But those documents simply do not support the official's testimony. Indeed, the county's opening brief at one point concedes that the consent decree and settlement order "do[] not dictate that the boundaries of District[ ]3 remain unchanged or even that District[ ]3 be a Navajo-majority" district. Aplt. Br. 42. Accordingly, the district court correctly determined that the Navajo Nation's claim seeking to modify District 3's boundaries doesn't implicate the consent decree and settlement order. As a result, we conclude that although the district court retained jurisdiction over the 1983 consent decree and settlement order, that fact didn't deprive the district court in this case of jurisdiction over the Navajo Nation's claim related to the county-commission districts.[7]

         Relatedly, and briefly, the county argues that the district court abused its discretion when it ruled that the United States wasn't an indispensable party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19. See N. Arapaho Tribe v. Harnsberger, 697 F.3d 1272, 1277 (10th Cir. 2012) (noting that we review Rule 19 determinations for abuse of discretion). The county suggests that because the consent decree is a contract, all parties to that contract-including the United States-must be involved in any litigation related to that contract. But as we've just detailed, the Navajo Nation's claim related to the county-commission districts doesn't implicate ...


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