BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The Montana Constitution gives all authority for remapping the state's political boundaries to a special commission, and the Legislature has no business trying to interfere with that process, the Montana Supreme Court said Wednesday.
The unanimous decision provided the high court's legal reasoning for its order issued Jan. 27 rejecting the 2003 Legislature's attempt to take over the assignment of midterm senators to newly drawn legislative districts.
That pairing of districts and ''holdover'' senators is an inherent part of the work that constitutionally belongs to the Districting and Apportionment Commission, the Supreme Court said.
The requirement that the commission handle redrawing of districts after a census is a self-executing provision, a term that means no legislative action is required to put it into effect, the justices said.
''By granting redistricting authority to the commission ... the constitution denied the Legislature any latitude to invoke its plenary powers,'' Justice Bill Leaphart wrote for the court.
Wednesday's explanation of the earlier order is the final chapter in the long battle over the work of the commission following the 2000 census.
The Republican-controlled Legislature tried to undo the work of the commission's Democratic majority, contending its plan was part of a Democratic scheme to regain control of the Legislature by putting new and incumbent Republican candidates at a disadvantage in future elections.
Democrats acknowledged the districting plan gives their candidates better chances in some districts, but they also insisted it was legal.
The 2003 Legislature passed laws to change the district boundaries drawn by the commission and its assignment of the 25 midterm senators to some of the new districts.
But the laws all 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.
The Supreme Court agreed with District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena that the Legislature trespassed where it didn't belong in passing laws tampering with the commission's actions.
The authors of the constitution made it clear they did not want lawmakers involved in the districting procedure, Leaphart said.
''It is clear from the transcripts of the Constitutional Convention that, in recognition of the Legislature's inability to redistrict itself, the convention assigned the task of redistricting to the commission - an independent, autonomous entity - and limited the Legislature's role to that of making recommendations,'' he said.By