HELENA - A federal court has refused to reconsider its December ruling that Montana's decade-old legislative district boundaries do not violate American Indians' voting rights.
The petition was an attempt to keep alive a lawsuit the ACLU filed in 1996 on behalf of some members of the Blackfeet and Flathead reservation tribes. The suit challenged the 1992 redrawing of legislative districts, which created one new Indian-majority district, for a total of six.
The ACLU contends three new districts were warranted. It argued that white-bloc voting for white candidates in four contested districts of northwestern Montana undermined minority voting rights of Indians.
In a one-page order the state Justice Department received this week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the request for a rehearing filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Laughlin McDonald, a Georgia attorney for the ACLU, said the case will "almost certainly" be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, he added, such an appeal would not be pursued if a new state districting plan, completed earlier this year, is upheld in a separate lawsuit filed in state court. A hearing in that case is scheduled for May 15, although a speedy decision is unlikely.
"If the court directs adoption of the plan, that plan would provide everything we sought in the litigation" by creating six Indian-majority House districts and three Indian-majority Senate districts, McDonald said.
The separate lawsuit now in state District Court deals with a law passed by the 2003 Legislature that changes the criteria for redrawing districts. The law orders the secretary of state to reject any plan that doesn't comply.
Secretary of State Bob Brown did that in February and asked for a court decision on whether the new law and the districting plan are constitutional.
He contends the law is a valid exercise of the Legislature's power and that new proposed district boundaries are illegal because they do not follow the law.
The commission that prepared the plan argues the law improperly alters the constitutional process for drawing new legislative districts after each census and cannot apply retroactively to its plan.