FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 7, 2019
Salt Lake City, UT – A reasonable person would assume that for one of Utah’s poorest counties, residents and county officials would place a higher priority on public health, roads, economic development, and other necessary public services than on paying lawyers to litigate losing cases. San Juan County may find that the price of a long history of “message litigation” and suppression of voting rights of the county’s Navajo population could soon leave the county facing bankruptcy.
“For too long, the extreme views of a handful of connected San Juan County politicians have been pursued at the expense of the rest of the county’s residents and finances,” said Chase Thomas, Alliance for a Better Utah’s executive director. “While it’s important for local governments to stand up for their legal rights, doing so to simply send a message to the federal government or to defend illegal actions is not in the best interest of constituents.”
It has been reported by the San Juan Record (Jan. 2, 2019) that in the last ten years, the county has paid more than $3.5 million in outside legal fees. That likely does not include $225,000 that the county paid on January 2, 2019 to settle a civil rights case the county lost in an unsuccessful effort to disqualify the candidacy of newly-elected commissioner Willie Grayeyes, who will take office on Monday.
After admitting they improperly excluded Mr. Grayeyes from the ballot in a public notice (link), the Commissioners have also authorized a settlement of the case in which the County has paid $225,000 in fees and costs to the attorneys who represented Mr. Grayeyes. Attorneys for Mr. Grayeyes estimate that the County also paid outside legal counsel somewhere in the range of $150,000 – $200,000 to defend the case. In short, the decision of the County to deprive Mr. Grayeyes of his civil rights cost County taxpayers close to half a million dollars.
Lead counsel for Mr. Grayeyes, Steven Boos, said, “In May 2018, I wrote to Mr. Nielson, explained the legal flaws in his removal of Mr. Grayeyes from the ballot and pleaded with him not to waste the County’s financial resources through these illegal actions. The County ignored my letter and its citizens have suffered the consequences.”
This isn’t the first time the former Commissioners have made decisions to deprive County citizens of their civil rights in ways that ended up costing County taxpayers dearly. In the election redistricting litigation against the County, Navajo Nation v. San Juan County, the plaintiffs repeatedly offered to settle the case, starting with an initial offer made in December 2012. The County ignored or rejected all of those settlement proposals, instead fighting the case to the bitter end. The County lost and there are now multiple court decisions stating that the outgoing Commission engaged in intentional racial discrimination against its Navajo citizens. The plaintiffs’ initial petition for fees and costs, filed in January 2018, was for $3.1 million. This will go up by about $200,000 – $300,000 once the fees for the County’s appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals are added in. (It is also estimated that the County has paid its outside counsel about $2.5 million in additional legal fees to unsuccessfully defend the case.)
According to a recent article in the San Juan Record, the County has pinned its hopes on avoiding fees in winning at the Court of Appeals. Steven Boos, who is also lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the redistricting case, said, “The County’s case has always been weak and the plaintiffs believe that the 10th Circuit will uphold the carefully reasoned decisions of Judge Shelby. County taxpayers are going to be saddled with the costs of the old Commissioners’ litigation addiction to the tune of over $5 million. Add another half million for the Grayeyes case. How can an impoverished county afford these kinds of indulgences?”
“These large sums of money that are now lining the pockets of attorneys could have been better put toward any number of projects that might have improved the lives of all San Juan County residents,” continued Thomas. “We hope the change of leadership going into effect today signals a new and brighter future for San Juan County.”
Alliance for a Better Utah is a good government advocacy and watchdog organization based in Salt Lake City. The organization works to improve the lives of all Utahns by ensuring balance, transparency, and accountability in Utah politics, policy, and government. More information at www.betterutah.org.