By Rone Tempest
Lander—In an important Wyoming civil rights case, a federal judge rejected two voting schemes proposed by Fremont County as perpetuating “separation, isolation, and racial polarization in the county.”
Instead, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson, of Cheyenne, ordered the county to provide for district election of county commissioners along lines proposed by members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. The tribal plan includes one district that is largely Native American.
Judge Johnson’s Tuesday, August 10, order marked a clear victory for tribal plaintiffs in the 2005 voting rights case. The case is one in a series of lawsuits claiming discrimination against minorities, including Native Americans living on reservations Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.
“After decades of disenfranchisement, and five years of litigation,” said Gary Collins, one of the plaintiffs and a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, “it feels great to know that we will finally cast a meaningful vote in the county commission election while still preserving our own tribal sovereignty.”
In April, Johnson issued a 102-page opinion detailing persistent, endemic discrimination against Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation, the majority of which is in Fremont County.
“The long history of discrimination against Indians in the United States, Wyoming and Fremont County is undeniable.” Johnson wrote. “The evidence presented to this court reveals that discrimination is ongoing and that the effects of historical discrimination remain palpable.”
Johnson ordered the county to scrap its at-large system of electing the five members of the county’s most powerful political body and replace it with a district election plan that would ensure that Native Americans were represented on an equal footing with the county’s majority white population. Wyoming law allows for either district or at-large plans although most counties opt for an at-large system.
The judge had ordered both the plaintiffs—represented by Lander attorneys Berthenia Crocker and Andrew Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union— and the defendants— represented by the Fremont County Attorney’s office and Mountain States Legal Foundation— come up with district voting plans to replace the at-large scheme.
Fremont County responded with a pair of “hybrid” plans, one of which would have created a “Native American super-majority district” that would virtually guarantee the election of a Native American while electing the remaining four members at-large.
Judge Johnson sternly rejected the county’s alternative plans, describing them as having been “crafted in such a manner that they preserve the racial separation of the county.”
Johnson said the county’s plans “appear to be devised solely for the purpose of segregating citizens into separate voting districts on the basis of race without sufficient justification…”
In addition, he ruled that “Wyoming law does not provide for the type of hybrid system” the county had prepared.
He ordered the county to adopt the five-district proposal that the plaintiffs preferred.
Plaintiff Pat Bergie, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, said the district voting plan will help Indians feel that they are more a part of the community. The county commissioners preside over the most basic local services including roads, public sanitation, and libraries.
“Right now,” said Bergie, “we are kind of looked at as ‘those Indians out there.’ In fact, we are a vital part of the county and the whole state, and contribute enormous amounts of money. So we need to have that voice.”
Attorney Crocker said Native American representation on the key county body will be a significant breakthrough. “There has never been a Fremont County commission that has been fully responsive to the needs of its Indian citizens,” Crocker said.
Douglas L. Thompson, chairman of the current Fremont County Board of Commissioners, said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision.
Thompson said that the alternative plans proposed by the county offered good solutions and that the plan accepted by the judge will place “an unworkable burden” on the county clerk to identify voters by district and inform them about the new system.
Three of the five commissioners’ terms expire January 1.
Thompson said the commissioners will meet Thursday, August 12, in executive sessions to decide whether to appeal the judge’s order.
Thompson said that the decision came at a time when the county was already working on several fronts, including transportation and youth services, to build better relations between the Indian and white communities.
“I think this whole issue is going to polarize the parties,” said Thompson. “We were working toward some better relationships and this is going to set that back.”
Judge Johnson’s Decision (102-page pdf)