By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The sole American Indian county commissioner in Blaine County wants more information before she votes on whether the county should appeal the court ruling that created the Indian-majority district that elected her.
"It's a concern for me that this information is available to the public," Dolores Plumage said today.
The Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represented the county is its first appeal, is asking the county to file an appeal in the case with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said Mountain States Legal Foundation told the commissioners in a teleconference Tuesday that client-attorney correspondence and client working notes in the file are private.
The Montana Freedom of Information Hotline said today that all of the information is probably public under state law.
Plumage said that once she knows what is private and what is public, she wants to hold a public meeting so her constituents can hear answers to questions like what the case will cost, what the process will be and what precedent would be set if the county won or lost.
The appeal would focus on whether the county's former at-large voting system, where all voters in the county participated in the election of all county commissioners, discriminated against American Indians. The county now limits voting to people who live in the district a county commissioner is from.
The county has until Dec. 6 to file an appeal.
Kleinjan said the Blaine County Attorney's Office will sort through the file and determine what should be confidential, he said.
"Everything in there might be able to be looked at, I don't know," Kleinjan said.
Helena lawyer Mike Meloy of the FOI Hotline said he thinks all of the information in the county's file would be public. While a case dealing with attorney-client correspondence or attorney working notes has not come before the Montana Supreme Court, it made clear in The Associated Press vs. Montana Board of Education thatdifferent rules apply to public bodies than private entities, he said.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that a public body in litigation had no right of privacy in its meeting with attorneys.
"That case specifically related to access to meetings where the board wanted to meet with its lawyers in private and the court said that's impermissable," Meloy said.
Even though Plumage's questions are about documents, not meetings, Meloy said he believes the ruling would apply.
The Blaine County Commission held a teleconference with Mountain State Legal Foundation at the request of Plumage, who wanted more information about the case.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Blaine County in 1999, saying its at-large voting system discriminated against American Indians in the county. The county's population is about 45 percent Indian, but an Indian had never been elected to the County Commission.
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro ruled in March 2002 the system did discriminate against Indians. Blaine County lost an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2002, and is now considering appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Commissioner Don Swenson said the case to date has cost the county about $68,000. It would cost $3,000 to $5,000 to file the appeal, and could cost $15,000 to $20,000 if the Supreme Court heard the case, he said.