SALT LAKE CITY – A judge who ordered a Utah county to put a Navajo man back on the ballot has determined the county clerk violated state law by improperly dating the residency complaint and by overstepping his role.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said in his written decision filed Thursday night that Democrat Willie Grayeyes’ rights were violated when San Juan County Clerk John Nielson falsified the complaint by dating it about a month earlier than when it was finalized to “make a backdoor challenge.”
Nuffer said Nielson “overstepped his role by taking on a prosecutorial role; an investigative role; and directing Ms. Black (the complainant) to complete a voter challenge.” Nuffer first announced his decision in a hearing Tuesday.
Grayeyes sued after he was disqualified as a candidate for county commission when county officials determined he didn’t live in the district. Judge Nuffer didn’t rule on the residency question.
Back on the ballot, Grayeyes will have a chance to tip the scales of the county’s power in favor of Democrats and Navajos if he can defeat his Republican challenger in November for a spot on the three-person commission. The other two spots were won at primaries: one by a Republican and one by a Democrat, raising the stakes in Grayeyes’ race.
It is the first election since a judge ruled local voting districts were illegally drawn based on race, and the latest court clash between Navajos and Republican county leaders over voting and election issues in the remote southeastern Utah county. The Navajo Nation overlaps with San Juan County and stretches into Arizona and New Mexico. Many people in the remote areas travel frequently for work and collect their mail across state lines.
Nielson declined comment. His attorney, Blake Hamilton, acknowledged in a statement that the backdating was a “serious lapse in judgment” but said it “had no outcome on the residency challenge.”
Hamilton said it was the first residency challenge Nielson had dealt with in his three years in the post and that he followed his predecessor’s practice of contacting the sheriff’s office to launch an investigation. Nielson backdated the complaint because he thought it was simply formalizing the date of when Wendy Black first tried to file the complaint a month earlier. Nielson later learned she had to fill out a form, Hamilton said.
He added that all of Nielson’s children identify as Navajo and that it has “pained him to witness firsthand the discrimination that they have faced.” His ex-wife, who he was married to for 15 years, is Navajo, Nielson said during questioning by Grayeyes’ attorney in July, court records show. Hamilton didn’t explain if Nielson’s kids were facing discrimination because of his involvement in this case or just because they’re Navajos.
Hamilton didn’t say if the county would appeal.
Grayeyes’ attorney, Steven Boos, said the mistakes can’t be washed away by Nielson’s alleged inexperience. Boos said Nielson has worked for years properly dating documents, with previous experience at a bank.
“The county took away some fundamental, constitutional rights from Mr. Grayeyes without following the law and Judge Nuffer has set that right,” Boos said. “He (Nielson) has shown that not only is he not trustworthy, but that he was willing to do things that he knew were wrong.”
Navajo Nation leaders have condemned the Grayeyes probe, but county officials say it isn’t related to politics or race. Their report found that neighbors and his sister told a sheriff’s deputy he lives primarily in Tuba City, Arizona, and he gave conflicting statements.
Grayeyes says he’s lived and been registered to vote in San Juan County for decades. They argue he was targeted because new, court-ordered voting districts could help more Navajos get elected.
Boos said this case is the latest example of discrimination against Navajos in the county. Boos said it didn’t help that Grayeyes serves on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that supported the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument to protect land that tribes consider sacred and is home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The creation of the monument by President Barack Obama in 2016 was fiercely opposed by Republican leaders in San Juan County and statewide. President Donald Trump ordered the monument downsized last year.
Black, the woman who lodged the complaint, was a candidate for the same commission seat as Grayeyes but lost at the county GOP convention in April to Kelly Laws, a former city councilman in the county’s largest town of Blanding. His father, Kendall Laws, is the county attorney.
Kendall Laws and Black were both sued by Grayeyes in this lawsuit, but were dismissed from the case.
The Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning government watchdog group, has called for an independent investigation of San Juan County, calling the county’s actions “prime examples of racism at work.”
Justin Lee, Utah’s Director of Elections, said they plan to review Judge Nuffer’s order to determine if the actions by Nielson and the county warrant an investigation by the state attorney general.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby handed down new districts after he decided the county was racially gerrymandered, and the districts were drawn to minimize the voices of Navajo voters, who make up half the electorate. Similar legal clashes have been waged over Native American voting rights in several states.
County leaders are challenging the new districts they say unfairly carve up the county’s largest city of Blanding, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City.