By BOB ANEZ Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Blaine County's now-scrapped system of electing commissioners violated the federal Voting Rights Act by discriminating against American Indians, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conclusion of a federal judge two years ago that the county's at-large election system resulted in white residents voting as a bloc, thus preventing Indian-preferred candidates from getting elected.
The ruling rejected the county's arguments that no such racially divided voting patterns existed and Indians were not disadvantaged by electing commissioners based on a majority of all voters in the county, rather than on balloting in individual districts.
The appeals court found conditions in Blaine County resulted in Indians' voting rights being violated. Racially polarized voting existed, government has a history of discrimination against Indians in Montana, and the county lacked a valid reason for using at-large voting, the court said.
Don Swenson, Blaine County Commission chairman, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he had not seen the decision. The same response came from Commissioner Delores Plumage, who was a critic of the old voting process and is the first-ever Indian member of the County Commission.
She was elected in 2002 under a new district system that replaced the at-large voting method the federal judge had thrown out earlier that year.
Ben Speakthunder, chairman of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council and opponent of the at-large voting process, was traveling and could not be reached.
Attorney Scott Detamore, who represented the county, said he probably will recommend the commissioners appeal Wednesday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He contends the decision wrongly found that the at-large voting system was illegal simply because it may have a disproportionate effect on a minority.
''You can't just say that because one group of candidates is regularly defeated (at the polls) that you can require a change in the entire voting system,'' he said. ''You need to prove there's some discrimination that's preventing Indians from exercising their right to vote.''
An official with the U.S. Justice Department, which had challenged the voting system, praised the ruling as a victory for Indian voters.
''Today's decision makes clear that the Voting Rights Act protects the rights of Native Americans to participate fully in our democratic process,'' said Alex Acosta, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. ''Native Americans must not be left behind in exercising the most important franchise we have as citizens, the right to vote.''
Filed in 2000, the suit claimed the process of having commissioner candidates run countywide had made it impossible for Indians, even voting as a bloc, to get their candidates elected. Although 45 percent of the county's population is Indian and 80 percent of the Indian residents live on the Fort percent of the Indian residents live on the Fort Belknap Reservation, the at-large elections resulted in candidates preferred by white voters always winning, the government said.
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro of Nevada agreed that the system violated voting rights of Indians and ordered the county to come up with a new method. The county adopted a plan in which each of the three commissioners runs in a separate district, but it appealed the finding that the old process was illegal.
The appeals court disposed of the county's initial argument that a section of the Voting Rights Act outlawing any voting procedure that denies a person's right to vote is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 settled that question and the lower courts must follow, the panel said.
Detamore, a lawyer with the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, said that issue would be reason enough to appeal the case. But he also took issue with the court deciding that the at-large voting system was illegal even without evidence that it was intentionally used to discriminate against Indians.
On the Net: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/