South Dakota Ordered to Comply with Voting Rights Act

August 22, 2006 12:00 am

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Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling Protects Rights of Native American Voters, Says ACLU

ST. LOUIS, MO — The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed a final federal appeals court decision affirming the redrawing of legislative district lines in South Dakota to ensure there is no discrimination against Native American voters. The decision came in Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine, a case originally brought by the ACLU on behalf of four Native American voters in December 2001, after the South Dakota legislature redrew the boundaries of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

“This is a victory for all South Dakotans because it reaffirms the importance of fairness at the ballot box, which benefits everyone, Indians and non-Indians alike,” said Bryan Sells a staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the case.

A year ago, on August 19, 2005, U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier ordered South Dakota officials to implement a redistricting plan that was fair to Native American voters, but the state refused and appealed the decision. Schreier’s ruling was upheld today in a unanimous 3-0 ruling by the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis.

“All voters want the integrity of their community preserved, not fractured, by redistricting. This decision will ensure that legislative districts in South Dakota keep communities together and will give Indian voters the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. When citizens have confidence that their vote counts and that their voices will be heard, then democracy works better for everyone,” said Sells.

The Eighth Circuit ruling in the Bone Shirt case is the second decision issued by the federal appeals court this year upholding the rights of Native American voters. In an earlier case, Cottier v. City of Martin, the court ruled in favor of Native Americans who claimed that the City of Martin had violated the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by drawing city council districts that dilute Indian voting strength.

“This decision will give our Lakota people an opportunity to elect our candidate of choice to the state legislature,” said Alfred Bone Shirt, a named plaintiff in the case. “Discrimination against Indians has been part of South Dakota politics for so long that it is only through cases like this that we have been able see any positive change.”

South Dakota is one of 16 states covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires specific jurisdictions to get federal approval before making changes to their election laws and procedures.

In 2002, a three-judge court held that the state had failed to submit its 2001 redistricting plan to federal officials for pre-approval. The state then submitted the plan to the U.S. Department of Justice, which cleared it for implementation, but the ACLU said it was discriminatory nonetheless because it created a 90 percent supermajority of Indian voters by “packing” them into one district. Judge Schreier later agreed with this claim and in a lengthy 144-page opinion issued September 15, 2004, she gave the state an opportunity to fashion a new plan that did not discriminate against Indian voters. After the state refused to do so, the judge issued her August 19, 2005 remedial order that new lines be drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act. It is this decision that was affirmed today.

“This decision clearly shows that Congress did the right thing last month when it voted to reauthorize the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” said Sells.

Patrick Duffy of the Rapid City, South Dakota, law firm of Duffy and Duffy also served as counsel on the case.

Today’s decision and other materials related to the case are online at:

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