EXPLAINER: Trial begins in tribes' lawsuit over North Dakota redistricting map

A bench trial has begung in Fargo in the federal lawsuit brought last year by two Native American tribes challenging North Dakota's redistricting map the GOP-led Legislature approved in 2021

Jack Dura
Monday 12 June 2023 22:55 BST
Redistricting Lawsuit North Dakota
Redistricting Lawsuit North Dakota (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Two tribes are in federal court this week, trying to prove to a judge that North Dakota's legislative district map dilutes Native American voters' strength on their reservations.

A trial began Monday in Fargo in the federal lawsuit brought last year by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Spirit Lake Tribe, who allege the redistricting done in 2021 by the Republican-led Legislature violates the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 civil rights law.

Their complaint alleges the reapportionment “packs” Turtle Mountain tribal members into one House district and leaves Spirit Lake out of a majority-Native district.

A federal judge last year denied the state's request to dismiss the case on the grounds that the tribes lack standing to sue. The bench trial in Fargo is estimated to last five days. A judge will decide the verdict.

Here's what to know in the lawsuit affecting how the tribes are represented in North Dakota's Legislature.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The Republican-led Legislature in a November 2021 special session reapportioned its 47 districts based on 2020 census data. Each district has one senator and two representatives.

The Legislature created four subdistricts in the state House of Representatives, including one each for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations. Lawmakers involved in redistricting cited 2020 census data meeting population requirements of the Voting Rights Act for creating the two subdistricts.

Turtle Mountain didn’t ask the Legislature for a subdistrict; Spirit Lake did and was denied, according to attorney Tim Purdon.

Tribal leaders unsuccessfully proposed a single legislative district encompassing the two reservations, which are roughly 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) apart.

Voters in 2022 elected tribal members to represent the two reservation-area subdistricts the Legislature created, though a former Turtle Mountain tribal chairman who had served 16 years in the state Senate lost his reelection bid.

Purdon said last year marks the first time since 1991 that the Senate has had no one in its body who is an enrolled member of a tribe sharing geography with North Dakota.

WHAT TO EXPECT AT TRIAL

The tribes will propose their district plan to the judge at trial as one "that does, in fact, comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Purdon said.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming an Alabama congressional map's impact on Black voters as a likely violation of the Voting Rights Act “strongly supports the arguments we're going to make at trial," Purdon said.

Two general outcomes are likely should the judge rule that the map violates the Voting Rights Act, according to Purdon. The judge could recommend a map for the Legislature to adopt, which lawmakers could approve, or the state could appeal.

A ruling in favor of the tribes “would be monumental for both Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain,” said Nichole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, which advocates civic engagement on reservations.

A “best-case scenario” would be the two tribes sharing a senator, with a House member from each tribe, Donaghy said.

“We are determined at building representation and getting equitable representation in the lawmaking process for our Native people,” she said in an interview.

Monday's trial proceedings included opening statements and testimony from former Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Douglas Yankton Sr.

Former Democratic state Sen. Richard Marcellais and Collette Brown, who testified at redistricting hearings for Spirit Lake and ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat, are on the plaintiffs' witness list, according to Purdon.

WHAT ELSE?

No matter the trial's outcome, the makeup of the Legislature wouldn't significantly shift.

Native Americans tend to vote for Democrats, who hold just 16 of 141 seats in the Republican-supermajority Legislature. Two lawmakers, both House Democrats elected last year, are known to be members of tribes sharing geography with North Dakota.

The lawsuit also is not the first time tribes and the state have clashed in court over similar matters. For years, the state's voter identification requirements were embroiled in federal lawsuits until a settlement in 2020. Many tribal members who live on reservations lack a verifiable street address, a component of the state's voter ID requirements.

Another lawsuit, brought last year by district-level Republican Party officials, alleges the subdistricts “are racial gerrymanders in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

That case is set for a bench trial to begin Oct. 2 in Fargo.

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