Five Cherokee Nation Tribal Council members filed suit against the administration Wednesday, saying a redistricting law passed in July is unconstitutional.
Councilors named in the suit include Buel Anglen, Jack Baker, Julia Coates, Lee Keener, and Cara Cowan-Watts. All opposed the legislation when it was presented at the July 17 meeting, saying it constitutes gerrymandering.
The act, which passed 10-7, increases voting districts from five to 15, allowing one district per tribal councilor, with two at-large positions. Under the new redistricting plan, the current District 5 – which includes Rogers and Tulsa counties – would lose a seat to a new district being created to cover Ottawa, northern Delaware and a portion of Mayes counties.
The seat being eliminated is held by Anglen, who is up for re-election next year. Under the new map, Cowan-Watts or Lee Keener, the other two District 5 councilors, would have move to new residences to seek re-election, or give up their slots on the council.
Anglen, Keener and Cowan-Watts have been vocal opponents of Principal Chief Bill John Baker since his election last year.
In their petition, councilors allege several counts under which the law should be rescinded.
The first count states council seats included in the new law are not apportioned to “afford a reasonably equal division of the citizens among the districts,” because many citizens have been omitted from the census due to “bad addresses.”
The new redistricting map is based on Cherokee Nation registration data, and switches former district voters with bad addresses to at-large voters. At-large voters are not counted in redistricting population figures, but are still allowed to participated in tribal elections.
The second count in the suit alleges the law violates fair voting, and divides communities.
“Several districts divide communities and do not follow permanent geographic features,” court documents state. “For example, the towns/cities of Skiatook and Tahlequah appear to be divided into three districts. No reason was entered into the legislative history [of the law] to justify that any variation from the ideal was necessary to achieve some legitimate tribal objective.”
Count three alleges the law violates fair voting common law by unduly favoring a person or political party.
“While Cherokee Nation does not have political parties as entrenched as Democrats or Republicans, there have emerged voting blocs analogous to political parties in this council,” the document states. “...The 10 council members, the ‘majority’ who voted [for the law], typically vote as a bloc on split votes. The seven council members, the ‘minority,’ who voted [against the law], typically vote as a bloc on split votes.”
Plaintiffs in the suit assert that, of the seats held by members of the majority, all are protected in districts as drawn in the redistricting law.
“Of the seats held by the members of the minority, one may be eliminated and two may force incumbent members of the minority to run against each other before the constitutional end of their terms ,” states the document.
Councilors voting in favor of the law included Tina Glory-Jordan, Joe Byrd, David Walkingstick, Jodie Fishinghawk, Janelle Fullbright, David Thornton, Frankie Hargis, Dick Lay, Charles Hoskin Jr., and Curtis Snell. Those opposed – in addition to Keener, Cowan-Watts, Anglen, Coates and Baker – included Don Garvin and Meredith Frailey.
The fourth count alleges the law is unconstitutional, as it creates conflict within the tribe’s constitution, and that because the law is effective immediately, it prevents affected councilors from serving their full terms.
During the July meeting, Hoskin recognized the eventuality of the suit filed on Wednesday.
“I believe we’re headed to a lawsuit, and what happened ... was a stage show to set up that court battle,” said Hoskin, referring to Cowan-Watts’ repeated efforts to get several other redistricting maps entered into the debate. “Otherwise, they would have brought these maps forward months ago. Does anyone seriously think we’re not headed to court? Does anyone think this was a sincere effort? A sincere effort would have been brought forth months ago.”
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