Three-Judge Panel Rules Unanimously in Favor of Native American Voters in South Dakota

July 14, 2005 12:00 am

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Federal Court Grants Injunction to Ensure Compliance with the Voting Rights Act

RAPID CITY, SD — The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that a panel of three federal court judges has issued an injunction against the state of South Dakota, ruling unanimously that state officials must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and obtain prior approval from the Department of Justice before implementing a new law that the judges say “gives the appearance of a rushed attempt to circumvent the VRA.”

The ACLU called this ruling an important example of why Congress should reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2007, when temporary provisions of the Act are set to expire.

“This ruling demonstrates the essential role played by the Voting Rights Act and the federal courts in protecting the right to vote for Native Americans in South Dakota,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the case. “While we are pleased at the relief granted in this case, we also are saddened that it has once again taken the intervention of the federal courts to ensure that state officials follow the law.”

The ACLU filed its motion for an injunction in March seeking to halt the state’s implementation of House Bill 1265, an emergency measure which allows counties to redraw their county commission district lines more than once per decade. The injunction was sought by the ACLU on behalf of four Native American citizens, including Elaine Quick Bear Quiver and Theresa Two Bulls, a state senator, on the grounds that HB 1265 violated the federal Voting Rights Act as well as a consent decree issued two-and-a-half years ago in Quiver v. Nelson, a voting case brought by the ACLU.

According to the ruling issued late yesterday, South Dakota officials have for decades avoided complying with the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to seek prior approval from federal officials before implementing more than 700 changes in election law or voting procedures that effect residents of Shannon and Todd Counties, which are covered by Section 5 of the Act.

“Plaintiffs have shown that for over 25 years defendants have intended to violate and have violated the preclearance requirements of the VRA,” said the panel. The fact that Secretary of State Chris Nelson had been found to have violated the Voting Rights Act in a different lawsuit in 2002 was another factor cited by the judges in issuing their injunction.

The controversy leading to yesterday’s injunction began in January, when the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Native American voters from Charles Mix County charging that the county commissioner districts were intentionally discriminatory, violated the constitutional standard of “one-person-one-vote” and diluted Native American voting strength in violation of the Voting Rights Act. That lawsuit, Blackmoon v. Charles Mix County, sought a court order dissolving the district lines, creating new, nondiscriminatory districts, and called for a special election. Although Native Americans constitute almost one-third of the county population, lead plaintiff and tribal elder Evelyn Blackmoon said that she could not recall any Native Americans ever serving on the county commission.

“We have been without a voice on the commission for too long,” Blackmoon said. “This is an effort to change that.”

In response to that lawsuit and in an attempt to avoid further litigation, Charles Mix County officials asked the South Dakota Legislature to pass HB 1265 as an emergency measure permitting them to redraw the county commission district lines. HB 1265 passed over the objection of Senator Two Bulls and was signed into law by the governor on March 7, 2005. Two days later, Charles Mix County officials submitted a redistricting request to the governor, despite the fact that HB 1265 had not been submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance as required by the Voting Rights Act.

Because those actions also violated the terms of the consent decree signed by state officials in 2002, the ACLU asked the federal court to intervene.

“The actions of the Legislature and the governor plainly violated our earlier agreement, as well as the straightforward provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “We are pleased and relieved that the court has agreed with our position and granted us this injunction.”

Yesterday’s ruling is online at: /node/23162.

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