News you can use

Supreme Court rejects assignment of senators

Tester, the Senate minority leader, said the Supreme Court's decision reinforces Democrats' repeated warnings during the Legislature that the Republican attack on the commission's work was treading on unconstitutional ground.

''From the get-go, we said the laws that they had passed and the fight over assignment of senators was a constitutional issue, and I'm very happy the Supreme Court upheld our state constitution,'' he said Tuesday.

''We wasted all this time last session passing these unconstitutional bills,'' Tester added. ''Their leadership lead the Republicans down the wrong path on this issue. It was a waste of time and a waste of resources. It served no purpose other than to make the session very, very partisan.''

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Stevensville Republican and one of the most adamant critics of the districting commission's work, said the Supreme Court has itself to blame for inserting partisan politics into the process. It was the court that chose Janine Pease Pretty On Top as commission chairwoman, creating a Democratic majority among the five members.

''The commission brought politics back into redistricting tenfold,'' Thomas said. ''What this commission and this court have now done is taken the majority Montana voters' representation in the state Senate and given it to the minority voters in Montana.''

He predicted the advantages of the holdover senator assignments will help Democrats gain a majority in the Senate this year, something they haven't had since 1993.

Although all the GOP attacks on the districting work were overturned, Thomas said he has no regrets.

''When you see a wrong, you need to do your best to right it,'' he said. ''We saw a wrong.''

Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, a former GOP legislator, was the only member of the court to voice an opinion in the case. Although not on the court when it unanimously chose Pretty On Top in 1999, he hinted he agreed with Thomas about the selection.

''If and when that would again occur, we should well remember the intention of the (Constitutional Convention) delegated and ensure that the person selected is fair, impartial and committed to the citizen, not the promotion of a particular political party,'' he wrote.

Democrat Joe Lamson, a former commission member, said the Supreme Court decision affirmed the wisdom of the constitution's authors who bestowed the districting power in the commission, not the Legislature.

Brown said he has no quarrel with the court's decision and that his defense of the legislative action was part of his job.

''The Supreme Court was the appropriate body to make a decision on a weighty matter like that,'' he said. ''I wasn't in a position to interpret a constitutional question like this. I was placed in a position of getting this thing ironed out legally so we would know how to proceed.''

HELENA - The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Legislature's attempt to take over the assignment of midterm senators to newly drawn legislative districts.

The unanimous ruling upholds the authority of the state Districting and Apportionment Commission to determine the pairings as part of its work of remapping the state's political boundaries following the 2000 census.

In handing down the decision without explanation, the justices said they will issue a full description of their ruling at an undetermined later date. The high court issued a speedy decision in the case because the period for candidates to file for office began Monday.

The decision, which upheld a district judge's order last month, settles the last remaining legal dispute over the Republican-controlled Legislature's efforts to undo the work of the Democratic majority on the commission.

The GOP maintained the commission's efforts were part of Democrats' 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.

The 2003 Legislature passed laws to change the district boundaries drawn by the commission and its assignment of the ''holdover'' senators to some of the new districts.

But the laws 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.


Reader Comments(0)