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Circuit Court of Appeals hands down favorable decision in voting rights case

ST. LOUIS, Mo. ñ The state of South Dakota has been given notice that a redistricting plan put in place by the U.S. District Court was a workable solution for American Indian voters in the state.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district Court decision that found the state violated sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act when American Indian voters were packed into one district.

ìWe affirm the decision of the district court and find that the preponderance of evidence shows that the plaintiffs met their burden. We also affirm the district courtís decision to impose the plaintiffís proposed remedial plan,î wrote Judge Gerald Heaney in the three-judge appellate panelís opinion.

The state was ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier to implement a redistricting plan that would split districts in order to afford American Indian voters the right to possibly elect additional preferred candidates to state office. Only four American Indians serve in the state Legislature, while American Indians make up 10 percent of the stateís population and 8 percent of residents of voting age.

ìThis decision will give our Lakota people an opportunity to elect our candidate of choice to the state Legislature. 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 to see any positive change,î said Alfred Boneshirt, Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, lead plaintiff in the five-year-old case.

In 2001 the state failed to submit a redistricting plan to the U.S. Department of Justice, but did submit the plan after a three-judge panel ruled against the state. The state then submitted the plan, only to return to court when a complaint was filed accusing the state of packing one district with 90 percent American Indian voters. That packing prevented an adjacent district from containing enough American Indian voters to elect their preferred candidate. The split created the potential to elect the preferred candidate.

The U.S. District Court ruled that the state violated the VRA and gave the state a timeline to redistrict, but the state refused. When the court implemented a new redistricting plan, the state filed an appeal.

The newly split district did not attract any American Indian candidates, but there is a candidate acceptable to the now-larger American Indian voting population in that half of the district: Larry Lucas of Mission.

The District Court found that American Indian voters usually voted in a cohesive fashion, favoring the same candidate or issue, while non-Indians voted as a bloc to defeat any preferred candidate. The appeals court upheld that finding. It was part of the requirement to prove that the VRA was violated.

The state used one district as an example to argue that non-Indian voters donít always vote in a bloc to defeat the preferred candidate, but the district the state used as the example has a supermajority of American Indian voters. That district has two House members and one senator that are American Indian ñ three of the four in the state Legislature.

The court found that the example was not appropriate since the non-Indian voting bloc was insufficient and did not provide proof that non-Indian bloc voting always defeated the American Indian preferred candidate.

The newly split district has no American Indian legislators, but does have a substantial American Indian population in a portion of the district. The split will allow the American Indian voter to possibly send their preferred candidate to the Legislature.

The court found that over the past 10 years, in the district that was split and is located partially on the Rosebud Reservation, the American Indian-preferred candidate lost despite receiving 70 percent of the American Indian vote. Non-Indian voters turned out in a large enough bloc to defeat the American Indian-preferred candidate.

Also, in that districtís elections between white candidates, the American Indian-preferred candidate lost each time.

ìAll 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,î said Bryan Sells, attorney with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

This case, referred to as Boneshirt, is the second case the 8th Circuit has ruled on in favor of the American Indian plaintiffs. The earlier case, Cottier v. Martin, found that the city redistricting plan violated the VRA in an attempt to dilute the American Indian vote.

In writing for the Circuit Court majority, Heaney referred to Cottier frequently. The state used many of the same arguments with the Boneshirt appeal that were reasons for ruling against the state in Cottier.

Another district in South Dakota is also split to allow American Indian voters from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to elect preferred candidates. Legal action was necessary to create that split as well.

South Dakota is required by law to abide by sections 2 and 5 of the VRA. Section 2 requires that all changes in voting regulations be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. Section 5 requires language interpreters be present at the polls.

The state has appealed all court ruling that affect both sections. Only two counties in South Dakota require Section 2 pre-clearance: Shannon on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Todd on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. ñ The state of South Dakota has been given notice that a redistricting plan put in place by the U.S. District Court was a workable solution for American Indian voters in the state.The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district Court decision that found the state violated sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act when American Indian voters were packed into one district.ìWe affirm the decision of the district court and find that the preponderance of evidence shows that the plaintiffs met their burden. We also affirm the district courtís decision to impose the plaintiffís proposed remedial plan,î wrote Judge Gerald Heaney in the three-judge appellate panelís opinion.The state was ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier to implement a redistricting plan that would split districts in order to afford American Indian voters the right to possibly elect additional preferred candidates to state office. Only four American Indians serve in the state Legislature, while American Indians make up 10 percent of the stateís population and 8 percent of residents of voting age.ìThis decision will give our Lakota people an opportunity to elect our candidate of choice to the state Legislature. 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 to see any positive change,î said Alfred Boneshirt, Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, lead plaintiff in the five-year-old case.In 2001 the state failed to submit a redistricting plan to the U.S. Department of Justice, but did submit the plan after a three-judge panel ruled against the state. The state then submitted the plan, only to return to court when a complaint was filed accusing the state of packing one district with 90 percent American Indian voters. That packing prevented an adjacent district from containing enough American Indian voters to elect their preferred candidate. The split created the potential to elect the preferred candidate.The U.S. District Court ruled that the state violated the VRA and gave the state a timeline to redistrict, but the state refused. When the court implemented a new redistricting plan, the state filed an appeal. The newly split district did not attract any American Indian candidates, but there is a candidate acceptable to the now-larger American Indian voting population in that half of the district: Larry Lucas of Mission.The District Court found that American Indian voters usually voted in a cohesive fashion, favoring the same candidate or issue, while non-Indians voted as a bloc to defeat any preferred candidate. The appeals court upheld that finding. It was part of the requirement to prove that the VRA was violated.The state used one district as an example to argue that non-Indian voters donít always vote in a bloc to defeat the preferred candidate, but the district the state used as the example has a supermajority of American Indian voters. That district has two House members and one senator that are American Indian ñ three of the four in the state Legislature.The court found that the example was not appropriate since the non-Indian voting bloc was insufficient and did not provide proof that non-Indian bloc voting always defeated the American Indian preferred candidate.The newly split district has no American Indian legislators, but does have a substantial American Indian population in a portion of the district. The split will allow the American Indian voter to possibly send their preferred candidate to the Legislature.The court found that over the past 10 years, in the district that was split and is located partially on the Rosebud Reservation, the American Indian-preferred candidate lost despite receiving 70 percent of the American Indian vote. Non-Indian voters turned out in a large enough bloc to defeat the American Indian-preferred candidate.Also, in that districtís elections between white candidates, the American Indian-preferred candidate lost each time.ìAll 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,î said Bryan Sells, attorney with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.This case, referred to as Boneshirt, is the second case the 8th Circuit has ruled on in favor of the American Indian plaintiffs. The earlier case, Cottier v. Martin, found that the city redistricting plan violated the VRA in an attempt to dilute the American Indian vote.In writing for the Circuit Court majority, Heaney referred to Cottier frequently. The state used many of the same arguments with the Boneshirt appeal that were reasons for ruling against the state in Cottier.Another district in South Dakota is also split to allow American Indian voters from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to elect preferred candidates. Legal action was necessary to create that split as well.South Dakota is required by law to abide by sections 2 and 5 of the VRA. Section 2 requires that all changes in voting regulations be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. Section 5 requires language interpreters be present at the polls. The state has appealed all court ruling that affect both sections. Only two counties in South Dakota require Section 2 pre-clearance: Shannon on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Todd on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.