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Montana Supreme Court picks redistricting panel chair

Posted at 6:50 AM, May 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-29 08:50:19-04
Sheila Stearns
Sheila Stearns most recently served as the interim president at the University of Montana. (MTN News file photo)

HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court Tuesday chose former state Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns as the fifth member and chair of the panel that will draw new legislative districts in Montana and, possibly, a new congressional district for the state.

Supreme Court justices, who met in a public session in Helena, discussed several possible appointments before deciding on Stearns, who was commissioner of higher education for nine years and interim president of the University of Montana from late 2016 to early January 2018.

Stearns will be the nonpartisan chair of the five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission, which redraws boundaries for all 150 legislative districts in Montana, to correspond with population changes in the 2020 Census. Those boundaries will take effect for the 2024 election and remain in place for a decade.

Montana also may gain another congressional seat after the Census. If that happens, the commission will draw the boundary for Montana’s two congressional districts, effective for the 2022 election.

The commission’s other four members have been appointed by Democratic and Republicans leaders of the Montana Legislature: Republicans Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek of Billings, and Democrats Joe Lamson of Helena and Kendra Miller of Bozeman.

Stearns, who lives in Missoula, told MTN News that she has “no pre-conceived agenda or notions whatsoever” as chair of the commission, and wants only to “seek the common good with my fellow commissioners, and make the five of us as effective as possible.”

Before retiring, Stearns had been a university or college-system administrator for most of the last three decades. She had been chancellor at University of Montana-Western in Dillon, president of Wayne State College in Nebraska, vice president at the University of Montana and higher education commissioner in Montana from 2003-2012.

She said Tuesday she’s also done some work as a mediator and took a mediation-training course in 2012.

The four partisan members of the Districting and Apportionment Commission met May 13 in Helena to attempt to choose a fifth member, but could not reach agreement which sends the decision to the Supreme Court.

In public comment Tuesday, Essmann, Stusek and others told the justices that the selection process should be extended, because members of the public hadn’t had a chance to know who was being considered.

Stearns’ name and a few other possibilities were brought up publicly Tuesday for the first time. Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker also suggested former U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Ostby for the job.

But the court voted 5-2 against extending the process.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath said the court is handling appointments like any executive branch agency and noted that legislative leadership didn’t have an open process to choose the other members of the commission. He also said asking for public comment on the potential chairs wouldn’t be fair to those under consideration.

“They didn’t open themselves up, they didn’t request this, to this kind of scrutiny, and to have … social-media comments about them personally or historically that may or may not be relevant to our decision-making process would be inherently unfair,” he said.

Stearns said McGrath contacted her two weeks ago and asked if she would consider it, telling her the decision might come to the Supreme Court and that he wanted to have some possible names for the court to consider.

-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News