Federal Court Rejects GOP Lawsuit Aimed At Eliminating North Dakota Tribal Nation Legislative Districts

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last Thursday, a three-judge panel rejected a federal lawsuit brought by local Republican Party officials alleging that some of North Dakota’s legislative districts were unconstitutionally drawn using race as the predominant factor. 

The GOP plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit in February 2022, specifically challenged the constitutionality of four North Dakota House subdistricts that together encompass the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian Reservations. 

During the 2021 redistricting process, the North Dakota Legislature split the state’s 4th and 9th House Districts in half for the first time in the state’s history, with one half of each district electing a separate state House member. 

According to the state, Subdistricts 4A, 4B, 9A and 9B were created in order to give tribal nations the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. Under the new map, voters residing in the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian Reservations could elect their preferred candidates in Subdistricts 4A and 9A, respectively. 

The GOP lawsuit challenged these subdistricts for being racial gerrymanders that ran afoul of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In court filings, the Republican plaintiffs argued that the Legislature created the subdistricts “solely on the basis of race” and with the “purported purpose” of complying with the Voting Rights Act (VRA). They further maintained that the state did not conduct adequate analysis of racial voting patterns to justify the creation of the subdistricts under the VRA. 

Shortly after the complaint was filed, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nations and other individuals intervened in the lawsuit to defend the subdistricts as being crucial to ensuring that members of these trial nations are afforded “an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice to the North Dakota legislature.”

In Thursday’s court order, the three-judge panel — consisting of one George W. Bush appointee and two Trump appointees — ruled in favor of the state and the tribal intervenors and against the Republican plaintiffs: “We agree with the State and the MHA Tribe” that “there was much evidence before the Legislative Assembly that the subdistricts were needed to satisfy the [Voting Rights Act] and avoid voter dilution claims.” 

The panel held that the state drew subdistricts within the 4th and 9th House Districts in a manner that was “narrowly tailored” to the specific goal of complying with the VRA. 

In granting the state defendants’ and tribal intervenors’ motions for summary judgment, the three-judge panel noted that “the State and the MHA Tribe also offer compelling and unrefuted evidence that as to district 4, without the subdistrict, Native American voters would in fact have a viable Section 2 voter dilution claim under the VRA.” Finally, the court concluded that the GOP plaintiffs’ request that the court order the elimination of Subdistrict 4 “would be itself a violation of the VRA and federal law.”

“This decision will positively impact North Dakota and the lives of everyone who lives on the reservation for years. Representation matters and I will continue to work hard to have their voices heard and their issues addressed,” stated Subdistrict 4A Rep. Lisa DeVille, a member of  the MHA Nation who intervened in the lawsuit. 

A separate federal lawsuit brought by Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Spirit Lake Tribe and individual Native American voters is ongoing. The case went to trial in June and alleges that subdistricts 9A and 9B, along with the 15th Legislative District, deprive Native American voters of an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice in violation of Section 2 of the VRA.

The tribal plaintiffs in the ongoing Section 2 lawsuit assert that the 2021 legislative plan packs tribal members in Subdistrict 9A and places the Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations in separate legislative districts, thereby diluting Native American voting power. They ask the court to order the creation of a district that includes both tribal nations.

Read the order here.

Learn more about the case here.

Learn more about the Turtle Mountain case here.