Historic win for Native Americans in NM redistricting, Jewish legal precedent

Albuquerque Examiner (NM) - Tuesday, January 31, 2012
While this week the NM Supreme Court hears Democrats and Republicans wrangle in appeals over a judge's ruling on New Mexico House redistricting, what has gotten lost in the shuffle is that a coalition of Native American tribes and pueblos have been able to significantly redraw the House and Senate maps in New Mexico. 

The following article appeared in the print edition only on page 3 of the January 26th Navajo Times, second in a series which began with N.M. redistricting fight comes to Navajo Nation. 

Tribes, Pueblos work together on redistricting plan 

by Diane J. Schmidt- Special to the Navajo Times 

photo L to R: Maxine Velasquez, attorney for Tesuque Pueblo; Conroy Chino, Acoma Pueblo elder; Cathy Gorospe, Laguna Pueblo member and attorney for Laguna Development Corporation; Teresa Leger, attorney for the Multi-Tribal plaintiffs. 

ALBUQUERQUE - In a historic decision that sends a message to powerful uranium mining interests and that represents new cooperation between tribes in New Mexico, a judge in Santa Fe has ruled in favor of Native American redistricting plans for both the House and Senate in northwest New Mexico. The rulings should also reverberate throughout other states with Native populations. 

As Acoma elder Conroy Chino said in an early morning phone interview following the judge's House ruling, “It’s an historic win. It’s the first time, in my lifetime, that the pueblos have taken an active role in drawing and crafting districts that best represents their concerns. It’s a very significant win.” 

The court battle erupted in September when New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez vetoed the Democrat-dominated legislature’s redistricting plans, including Native plans, over the 2010 census. Judge James T. Hall announced late on January 3 that the Multi-Tribal/Navajo Nation plan must be part of the newly redistricted House maps. And his second, even more anxiously awaited ruling, announced January 16th, Martin Luther King Day, adopted the Unified Native American plan for the Senate maps. 

The Native plans take aim at Sen. David Ulibarri’s (NM-D Cibola, Socorro and Valencia counties) hold over the Grants mining district boundaries. Acoma and Laguna Pueblos will now have a stronger voice in choosing and electing State representatives who will represent their interests surrounding Mount Taylor, with newly redrawn House Districts 6 and 69, and Senate District 30. 

Chino explained, “Uranium interests had an influence in how the Executive and also the James plan were crafted, (but then) the judge then took the testimony and concerns of the tribes and went with a plan that didn’t separate Mount Taylor from the key pueblos of Acoma and Laguna.” The plan also keeps the Pueblo of Tesuque from being divided, keeps Isleta in District 29, and retains 3 Native American senate districts (3, 4 and 22). 

“It’s really the first time the Navajos, Pueblos and the Jicarilla Apaches have really worked together and were able to make some compromises and in the end come up with a plan that they agreed best reflected their concerns,” Chino said. 

Chino also pointed out that, “There’s an effort in Arizona to try and get tribes to become unified, and I hope that other states that have large Native populations will look to New Mexico and model their efforts on what we were able to achieve.” 

During hearings in Santa Fe on December 15, pueblo leaders presented detailed maps and testimony that addressed poverty, education, language immersion programs, and the tribes’ spiritual concerns for Mount Taylor. 

Chino, who spent 24 years in television news and was New Mexico’s Secretary of Labor under Governor Bill Richardson, and who is now chair of the legislative committee for the All-Indian Pueblo council, an organization formed in 1598, was one of those who testified. 

During a recess in the hearing that day, the Navajo Times caught up with Chino, who said, “Our mission was to create a Senate district of influence, whereby we could select and pick and elect someone who would be best responsive to the tribes’ interests and concerns.” 

In Senate District 30, the area that includes Grants and Mount Taylor and uranium mining interests, under the Unified Native American Plan the number of Native American voters over 18 will increase to 8,715, almost 25%, and will include Laguna and Acoma. The judge says this will be sufficient for Native voters to cast decisive votes for candidates of their preference. Under earlier opposition plans there would only have been 2,441, or 6.7% Native voters. 

The Native American "Consensus Plan" was hashed over the summer. It later incorporated the Navajo Nation plan developed by Leonard Gorman of the Navajo Human Rights Commission, which extends the influence of Navajo voters into more districts in northwest New Mexico. 

Chino said the Navajo input was essential. “Leonard (Gorman, director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission office) and his technical team were extremely helpful in the preparation of the maps because they had the software that allowed us to drill down to and isolate precincts to gauge demographics for a particular precinct, and show how each precinct was so important in the crafting of all these districts.” Chino also thanked Rep. Ray Begaye (D-NM Shiprock) for introducing the Multi-Tribal plan into the legislature. 

The judge cited the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed to prevent the disenfranchisement of black voters, and the 2002 New Mexico court-mandated redistricting rules for the tribes won by attorney Teresa Leger, who represented the Multi-Tribal plaintiffs. 

Judge Hall wrote that there was “…racially polarized voting in Native American districts in New Mexico, and that non-Native voters vote sufficiently as a bloc in primary elections to veto more often than not the election of the preferred candidate of Native American voters.” 

The 2010 census shows that total Native American population grew at a rate of 14.6%, that Natives constitute 10.7% of the population of New Mexico, but that they currently hold only three seats in the New Mexico House and two in the Senate. Hall concluded, “Native Americans in New Mexico continue to suffer the effects of historic discrimination, in areas such as education, employment, and health, which hinder their ability to effectively participate in the political process.” 

New Mexico is one of 12 swing states that will be battlegrounds in the presidential elections this year. So far, the significance of the Native American input in the redistricting process has been largely overlooked in Albuquerque news coverage. 

Attorney Leger said after the ruling that "What the decision shows is that the unity of all of New Mexico's tribes - both during the legislative session and in the courtroom - had a significant positive impact on the redistricting of New Mexico.” 

She continued, "For the second time, a State Court has ruled that it is important to respect tribal self-determination when redistricting and as a policy of the State. The first time was in 2002. This ruling is even stronger on that issue. It recognizes the historic electoral discrimination against Native Americans and that redistricting consistent with the tribal wishes can help remedy that discrimination.” 

Next on everyone’s to-do list: Get out the vote! 

***And, as it often happens that many legal precedents established in this country can be traced to the efforts of Jewish organizations fighting for civil rights, a key element of the current arguments of the legal team led by Santa Fe lawyer Teresa Leger for the Native American Redistricting Workgroup builds on an earlier 2002 ruling she won which establishes that a 64% Native American Voting Age Population (VAP) is an optimal figure for a district that has a significant Native population. 

And that historic win, in turn, according to the Workgroup's brief, cites an earlier court decision reached in 1977 by the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, as they stated, 

"Majority Minority Effective Percentages:…The Supreme Court has not adopted a bright line rule as to how large of a super majority is needed to create “safe” majority/minority districts, but in United Jewish Organizations of Willamsburg v. Carey 430 U.S. 144, 146 (1977), the Court found 65% to be reasonable… 

...The Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache Nation presented expert witness testimony in 2002 that in New Mexico, the reasonable percentages were above 60% of VAP, which amounted to approximately 64% of total population. The Court adopted these findings. We consider the Jepsen Court ruling as the status of law in New Mexico. Accordingly, 64% is the optimal target for the plans.” 

I mention the above to explain the relevance to this website, The Albuquerque Judaism Examiner, of this article. It also follows this site's years-long commitment to scrutinizing uranium mining and the nuclear fuel cycle in New Mexico in terms of environmental justice, and the state's uniquely diverse spirituality.