SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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.
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.