Judge rules for Indians in voting rights case

Casper, Wyoming (AP) May 2010

Fremont County’s at-large voting system for county commissioner elections dilutes the American Indian vote and must be changed, U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson has ruled.

Johnson ruled April 29 that Fremont County’s election system violates the Voting Rights Act and the county must submit a voting plan to the court by June 30 to create single-member districts.

Five members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes sued Fremont County in 2005. The two tribes share the Wind River Reservation, which falls mostly within Fremont County.

Johnson dismissed the defense argument that apathy was behind low participation among American Indians and dilution of their voting strength in county and state elections.

“This argument overlooks the fact that Indians were historically denied the right to vote, that literacy tests had been imposed, and that Indians had suffered other forms of discrimination in the past, all of which have been responsible for denying Indians the opportunity to participate in the political process,” Johnson wrote in his ruling.

Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn said that he was still reviewing the ruling and the county’s options and hasn’t decided whether to appeal. The county’s primary concern is developing a plan to hold elections this year, he said.

Johnson presided over a trial in the case in February 2007. His years-long deliberation prompted repeated letters from the American Civil Liberties Union asking for a ruling in the case. The ACLU and two Lander attorneys have represented plaintiffs in the case.

Johnson issued his 102-page ruling three weeks after the ACLU asked a federal appeals court to force Johnson to decide. Johnson said in a separate court filing that his opinion represented his response to the federal appeals court invitation to respond to the ACLU filing.

Atlanta lawyer Laughlin McDonald, who heads the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, represented the plaintiffs.

“We’re very gratified, and think it’s the appropriate ruling,” he said.

“It will clearly give Native Americans an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” McDonald said. “And I would also say that this will have an impact on all of the voters of Fremont County, and this will be a beneficial impact because it will make the process more democratic, it will make it more inclusive.”

Johnson considered multiple demographic, historical, cultural, statistical, economic, social and other factors related to the tribes, the reservation and American Indians.

McDonald said he believes Johnson’s ruling has national significance given that recent lawsuits in the South have challenged the constitutionality of elements of the Voting Rights Act, claiming there’s no more discrimination in the voting process.

Varn and the Mountain States Legal Foundation represented Fremont County. The defendants argued that the county’s at-large system of electing commissioners provides a greater diversity of candidates and more choices for voters. They said it also encourages candidates to consider the needs of the entire county instead of their narrow constituencies.

J. Scott Detamore, a lawyer with the foundation, said he’s disappointed with Johnson’s ruling.

“I would say that the judge characterizes all disagreements between the tribe and the county and the cities as being not of an economic nature and not of a political nature and that everything really is based on racial discrimination,” Detamore said.