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Judge to hear arguments in districting suit

 


HELENA - Two arms of state government square off in court Thursday in a legal battle over the fate of a plan that redraws Montana's legislative boundaries following the 2000 census.

The Democratic-controlled commission that crafted the plan contends an attempt to destroy it is an unconstitutional effort at a political coup by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown counters that the plan itself was an illegitimate proposal designed to give Democrats an edge in future elections, and the Legislature's passage of a bill to force changes in the plan was a proper exercise of its lawmaking power.

District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena will hear arguments from both sides during a hearing Thursday, although a decision is not expected quickly. Whatever the ruling, both sides believe it will be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

A decision that overturns the proposed plan would require a new one to be drawn.

The case must be resolved in time for election officials to know the district boundaries before the two-month candidate filing period opens Jan. 26, said Elaine Graveley, elections administrator in the secretary of state's office.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Stevensville Republican and a chief critic of the districting plan, said the court fight is crucial to Montana politics.

''For the people, this system of reapportionment in Montana needs changing, needs fixing, so there is not political gerrymandering of their legislative districts,'' he said. ''It tilts legislative districts in favor of one party or another.''

Sen. Mike Cooney, a former secretary of state and opponent of the Legislature's actions, said the case will set a precedent for Montana politics.

''The Legislature is intervening in a process that is supposed to be somewhat more removed from the political influence,'' said the Helena Democrat. ''It was designed that way by the framers of the constitution so the Legislature wouldn't meddle and try to fine-tune the process.''

Thursday's hearing is the latest chapter in the ongoing dispute over the Districting and Apportionment Commission's work in remapping legislative boundaries to reflect population changes found in the last census.

The 2003 Legislature, run by Republicans furious over the plan, launched a three-prong attack to change it.

It took over from the commission the power to assign new districts with those senators not on the ballot next year, the first election under a new districting plan. Lawmakers also approved sweeping changes in how future plans are developed and the role of the Legislature in that process, but a proposed constitutional amendment needed to implement the changes failed.

The third measure is the heart of the legal fight.

Senate Bill 309 changed the criteria for district populations in the plan and ordered Brown to reject any plan that did not comply. He complied, and asked McCarter to determine the constitutionality of both the plan and the law.

Republicans contend Democrats on the apportionment commission drew a plan designed to help their party, which has seen Republicans majorities in both houses of the Legislature since 1995.

Democrats on the commission acknowledge the plan gives their party's candidates a better chance to win in more districts, but insist the plan is legal.

The lawsuit pits Brown against Democratic Attorney General Mike McGrath, whose office is representing the commission.

The Justice Department said the Legislature overstepped its constitutional bounds by trying to give itself and the secretary of state greater roles in the redrawing of legislative districts than is allowed in the constitution.

But Brown has responded that nothing in the constitution prohibits the Legislature from doing what it did. The question is not what the constitution authorizes, but what it forbids, and it doesn't forbid SB309, his lawyers said.

The law merely fleshes out the constitutional provisions on redistricting and gives Brown's office a new responsibility, they argued.

 

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