Federal Court Upholds Native American Voting Rights In South Dakota Lawsuit

December 16, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Successfully Challenged Unlawful Voter Dilution Plan

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ST. LOUIS – A federal appeals court today affirmed a decision protecting the rights of Native American voters in Martin, South Dakota. Siding with the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eight Circuit ordered local officials to correct violations of the Voting Rights Act that prevented Native Americans from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.

“This is a tremendous victory for the people of Martin, South Dakota,” said Bryan Sells, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project and lead counsel on the case. “We are deeply gratified that the appeals court affirmed the rights of Martin’s Native Americans, who have endured a long, hard struggle for equality at the voting booth. This ruling will provide Indian voters with the right to have an equal say in choosing their government.”

The ACLU brought the lawsuit in April 2002 on behalf of two Native American voters who say the redistricting plan adopted by the city that year had the purpose and effect of diluting Native American voting strength. Native Americans made up approximately 45 percent of the city’s population but would have been unable to elect any candidates of their choice to the city council because the redistricting plan ensured that white voters controlled all three city council wards.

The district court initially ruled in the city’s favor in March 2005. The Native American plaintiffs appealed, and on May 5, 2006, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, sending the case back to the district court.

In December 2006, the district court not only ordered a “full and complete remedy” for the plaintiffs, but also affirmed many of the factual claims of voting discrimination that the voters had described in their original lawsuit, including the fact that the city’s 2002 redistricting plan unlawfully dilutes Native American voting strength. Today’s ruling upholds that decision, as well as the adoption of voting system proposed by the plaintiffs.

“Today’s decision will not only provide Native Americans an equal voice in the selection of city officials, but will help bring all communities closer together so that they can address and solve their common problems,” said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “This ruling also serves an important reminder that the Voting Rights Act remains a valuable tool to guard against discrimination in the electoral process.”

“This is another step in securing equal rights for all South Dakotans at the ballot box, but it will not be the last step,” said Patrick Duffy, a cooperating attorney from Rapid City, South Dakota. “There is more work to be done.”

Today’s decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/minority/38116lgl20081216.html

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