Appeals court revives Native voting rights lawsuit

Native Americans in a South Dakota reservation border city have been given another chance to pursue their Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up nearly 45 percent of the population in Martin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city is located next to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

Despite the high percentage of Native Americans, only two Indian-preferred candidates have been elected in over two decades. That record prompted Pearl Cottier and Rebecca Three Stars, both members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, to file a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the voting system dilutes the voting power of Native Americans.

A federal judge dismissed the suit in March 2005, ruling that the tribal members failed to show that city's redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday disagreed and sent the case back for further review.

"If the district court then finds in favor of the plaintiffs, it shall develop a plan under which Native Americans will have a reasonable opportunity to elect an Indian-preferred candidate," Judge Gerald W. Heaney wrote for the 2-1 majority.

Should Cottier and Three Stars prevail, Native voters could make history by electing their first preferred candidate. In court, the plaintiffs provided alternatives to the city's redistricting plan to draw at least one majority-Indian district.

Evidence introduced in court also showed that Native voters typically vote in a block. But due to the way the city's three wards are drawn, the white majority always prevailed, the 8th Circuit majority said on Friday.

"The record clearly reflects that in 2002, the Indian-preferred candidates for alderman in each of the three wards lost," the 8th Circuit observed. "In 2003, the Indian-preferred candidates for alderman in Wards I and III lost. And in 2004, the Indian-preferred candidates for alderman in each of the wards lost."

"Because Native Americans and whites make up more than 99% of Martin's population, the only conclusion available is that whites voted as a bloc to defeat the Indian-preferred candidates," the decision stated.

One member of the 8th Circuit, however, disagreed with the majority's ruling. Judge Steven M. Colloton, an appointee of President Bush, said Cottier and Three Stars failed to provide evidence that their voting rights were violated.

Due to the split, a rehearing before the 8th Circuit is possible. But for now, the American Civil Rights Liberties Union, which filed the case on behalf of the tribal members, declared victory.

"I am pleased that the Eighth Circuit recognized their right to finally have a say in how their town is run," said Jennifer Ring, the executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, "Nothing beats an actual seat at the table."

The ACLU has filed a string of voting rights and discrimination lawsuits in South Dakota on behalf of tribal members. In nearly every single case, the Indian plaintiffs have prevailed in court or reached a favorable out-of-court settlement.

Nationwide, Native voters in South Dakota have gained attention for their ability to sway key elections. In 2002 and 2004, Native Americans helped Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D) win their seats.

Court Decision:
Pearl Cottier v. Martin (May 5, 2006)

Case Documents:
Pearl Cottier v. City of Martin (8th Circuit Court of Appeals)

Relevant Links:
American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas -