HELENA (AP) - The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Legislature's attempt to take over the assignment of midterm senators to newly drawn legislative districts.
The unanimous ruling upholds the authority of the state Districting and Apportionment Commission to determine the pairings as part of its work of remapping the state's political boundaries following the 2000 census.
In handing down the decision without explanation, the justices said they will issue a full description of their ruling at an undetermined later date. The high court issued a speedy decision in the case because the period for candidates to file for office began Monday.
The decision, which upheld a district judge's order last month, settles the last remaining legal dispute over the Republican-controlled Legislature's efforts to undo the work of the Democratic majority on the commission.
The GOP maintained the commission's efforts were part of Democrats' scheme to regain control of the Legislature by putting new and incumbent Republican candidates at a disadvantage in future elections.
The 2003 Legislature passed laws to change the district boundaries drawn by the commission and its assignment of the "holdover" senators to some of the new districts.
But the laws were struck down by judges in separate lawsuits. The ruling on assignment of midterm senators was the only one appealed to the Supreme Court.
Three Democratic senators _ Jon Tester, Big Sandy; Mike Wheat, Bozeman; and Ken "Kim" Hansen, Harlem _ affected by the legislative assignments sued Secretary of State Bob Brown, the state's chief elections official.
Tester, the Senate minority leader, said the Supreme Court's decision reinforces Democrats' repeated warnings during the Legislature that the Republican attack on the commission's work was treading on unconstitutional ground.
"From the get-go, we said the laws that they had passed and the fight over assignment of senators was a constitutional issue, and I'm very happy the Supreme Court upheld our state constitution," he said Tuesday.
"We wasted all this time last session passing these unconstitutional bills," Tester added. "Their leadership lead the Republicans down the wrong path on this issue. It was a waste of time and a waste of resources. It served no purpose other than to make the session very, very partisan."
Brown said he has no quarrel with the court's decision and that his defense of the legislative action was part of his job.
The lower-court ruling needed to be appealed to the Supreme Court "because it was a constitutional question about the legal authority of the legislative branch of government," he said.
"The Supreme Court was the appropriate body to make a decision on a weighty matter like that," Brown said. "I wasn't in a position to interpret a constitutional question like this. I was placed in a position of getting this thing ironed out legally so we would know how to proceed."