By Staff and wire report
Blaine County is mulling an appeal of its former at-large election system before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year upheld a federal judge's 2002 ruling declaring Blaine County's system unconstitutional because it discriminated against American Indians.
Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit legal group, is urging the county to go forward with an appeal.
Two of the three county commissioners said they believe the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds in forcing a local government to change its election process.
''I don't feel the federal government should be able to come in and tell the county how to run,'' Commissioner Art Kleinjan said last week.
The commission, which also includes Don Swenson and Dolores Plumage, must decide by Dec. 6 whether to appeal.
Plumage declined to comment on whether she thinks the county should appeal. She said today that the commission will hold a teleconference with the Mountain States Legal Foundation on Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the commission office to answer some questions she has about appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I am reserving my comments until I find out more," she said.
Plumage, the first American Indian commissioner elected in Blaine County, was elected in 2002 from one of the three new districts created after the 2002 court ruling. Instead of allowing the entire county to vote on filling each commission seat, voting is restricted to the district the commission candidate lives in.
Plumage's district has a 90 percent Indian majority, the second is about 40 percent Native American and the last is about 5 percent Native American.
The U.S. Justice Department sued the county over the system in 1999.
The system of electing county commissioners, the federal court ruled, resulted in white residents voting as a bloc and unfairly prevented Indian candidates from getting elected.
At least 45 percent of Blaine County is American Indian.
Mountain States Legal Foundation attorney Scott Detamore said last week that the federal government is wrongly using an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 against local governments in the West.
The amendment, adopted in 1982, states that voter discrimination cases do not have to prove that the discrimination was intentional. But Detamore argues the West's at-large election systems, in effect for years, were adopted because they worked, not as a means of discrimination.
''The Justice Department walks in here and says to these counties, 'Change or we're going to sue you,''' Detamore said.
Darrell Martin, chairman of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, was disappointed to hear of a possible high court challenge. He said the case was already settled in the tribe's eyes.
''To me it looks like it's turning into an Indian versus white thing, and it shouldn't be that way,'' Martin said last week. ''We're all people, and we all breathe the same air.''