By By BOB ANEZ
Associated Press Writer
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.
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.
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.
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, that 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.
On Dec. 4, a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court upheld a federal judge's decision in early 2002. He had found no evidence the 1992 apportionment plan diluted the ability of Indian voters in and around the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations to elect Indian candidates.
The appeals court said the case revealed some factors suggesting Indian voting was diminished in Montana, but it also found signs to the contrary.
While the three-judge appeals court panel was unanimous in rejecting the ACLU's request to have the full court reconsider that ruling, one of the judges, Michael Hawkins, favored a hearing on whether the entire case in moot.
The fact that the court did not take up that issue was important, said Sarah Bond, the state's attorney in the case.
If the aging case had been declared moot, the court could also have voided lower-court decisions upholding the districting plan, she 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 and 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.