By TEDDYE SNELL
The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court on Wednesday approved a redistricting measure providing 15 voting districts within the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction.
Last September, five CN tribal councilors – Buel Anglen, Jack Baker, Julia Coates, Lee Keener and Cara Cowan-Watts - filed suit against the administration, saying the redistricting measure passed by the council in July was unconstitutional.
“The boundaries of these districts variously follow county lines, highways, rivers and zip code boundaries,” wrote CN Supreme Court Justice James Wilcoxen in the opinion. “Not in every instance are these districts contiguous or compact. This court does not find there is a sufficient basis to interfere with the actions of the Tribal Council.”
In January, a CN District Court judge ruled the council followed proper legal channels within the tribe’s constitution when it voted to redistrict from five districts to 15. According to a press release provided by the tribe’s administration, the districts were drawn to keep communities intact and provide each councilor about 7,000 constituents to serve per district.
Under the new map, each district will have its own councilor, with two at-large positions, for a total of 17 council slots. 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 would have been up for re-election this year. Also, Cowan-Watts or Keener, the other two District 5 councilors, will have to move to seek re-election, or give up their slots on the council. Cowan-Watts and Keener are not up for re-election until 2015, and the council measure is not retroactive.
CN Attorney General Todd Hembree said the technology employed to determine the new districts is more accurate than what’s in use now.
“There is no perfect science to drawing new boundaries for any redistricting plan, but the majority of our legislative body did its best to keep the continuity of communities together,” said Hembree in a press release.
Nine tribal council seats are up for election, with candidate filings set for Monday through Thursday, March 4-6.
The Cherokee Nation Election Commission has hired Geo Information Systems officials at the University of Oklahoma to help place citizens in new districts.
“We are well on our way to having that accomplished,” said CN Election Commission Attorney Harvey Chaffin.
Tina Glory-Jordan, speaker of the council, said the ruling will allow the tribe to progress.
“[Thursday’s] decision by our highest court is the final word on this matter,” said Glory-Jordan. “Now, we can move forward.”
Cherokee Nation Deputy Speaker Chuck Hoskin Jr., of Vinita, praised the ruling.
“The court reached the only reasonable conclusion that could be reached based on the facts and the law,” said Hoskin. “Redistricting was the process of careful consideration and it easily survived constitutional scrutiny.”
Councilor Jodie Fishinghawk, of Stilwell, agreed with Hoskin, saying the new map will provide better service to citizens.
“Redistricting was hard work,” said Fishinghawk. “The result of that hard work is a map that will better serve the Cherokee people. I hope the dissenting councilors will respect the court’s decision, so we can move on to take care of the peoples’ business.”
Councilors opposing the measure believe the court failed to consider all the questions raised, including “bad addresses” they assert were not counted in the apportionment process, and the fact that Keener and Cowan-Watts were assigned to the same district.
“If the court does not correct these errors, there will likely be voter confusion and disenfranchisement in the June 22 elections,” states the release provided by Cowan-Watts. “Cherokees who live in Mayes, Delaware, Rogers and Tulsa counties have had money and political power stolen from them by politics in Tahlequah.”
Anglen said citizens never had a voice in the decision.
“The politicians in Tahlequah and Chief [Bill John] Baker could not beat Cara Cowan-Watts or me at the polls where the voters count,” said Anglen in the release. “So, they had to manipulate the system and violate the Constitution to unseat one or both of us illegally. I do not understand why the court did not do its job and consider each violation of the constitution as they are standalone issues.”
Councilors opposing the law indicated they are not asking for a new map, but that the June election be held with the existing five districts until “proper population counts and reasonable districts can be presented, debated and passed.”