The Montana Supreme Court held a meeting on Tuesday, May 28, to select the chair of the Districting Commission. This decision will have a decade-long effect on the Montana Legislature and U.S. Congress. For the first time in 30 years, Montana may gain a second congressional seat to represent us in D.C.
After a history of partisan squabbling and political gamesmanship led to much squandering of legislative time, the 1972 Constitutional Convention adopted a Districting Commission made up of five public members. Partisan legislative leadership select two Democrats and two Republicans. These four members in turn are to select an “impartial” commission chairperson to serve as a tie-breaker.
At our initial meeting we Republican commissioners asked Montanans to suggest the names of people they felt could serve as an impartial tie-breaker. The Democrat commissioners agreed. After just a week, we received 21 applications. However, we failed to reach an agreement on a chair and under the Constitution, the choice became that of a majority of the Montana Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, we Republicans asked the court to be patient, inform the public of who was on their short list and provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process as required by Article II, Section 8, of the Montana Constitution and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court did not heed our request, but we continue to feel that a future, more rigorous public participation process would aid in the selection of an impartial chair who will be the voice of the public on the commission rather than the voice of the parties like we four political appointees.
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We now pivot to working with newly appointed Chair Sheila Stearns and the task of creating the rules for us to work by. We thank Stearns for her willingness to join us in service to the people of Montana. She has a long record of leadership and public service to our state. We hope she will follow the good precedent established by Chair Jim Regnier during the last cycle in seeking public input on the rules; that is, the line-drawing criteria that we will follow. Good districts are generally recognized to be representative of communities of interests and it is our belief that the best expression of those communities are our existing communities, whether they be our cities, counties or reservations. These lines should be respected.
A rigorous process, public involvement and clear, uniform rules and criteria will guarantee an outcome that is fair and will be supported by the public. Partisans will likely be disappointed at times when the consistent application of the rules results in a less than favorable outcome to their party, but that is the result if the chair serves as a neutral arbiter.
We Republican commissioners look forward to the work ahead with our Democratic colleagues under the leadership of Chair Sheila Stearns. We ask the public to please pay attention as our work begins and hold us all accountable.