HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court plans to choose the critical fifth member of the state panel that will draw new legislative districts in Montana for the next 10 years — and, possibly, a new congressional district for the state on May 28.
The high court has placed the item on its public administrative meeting agenda for next Tuesday. A court official told MTN News Friday that the Supreme Court intends to appoint the new chair of the Districting and Apportionment on Tuesday, after hearing public comment.
The five-member commission, which is appointed every 10 years, will redraw 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 already has four members, 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.
The four panel members met May 13 in Helena to attempt to select a fifth member and chair, but could not come to an agreement — which sends the issue to the Montana Supreme Court to decide.
Essmann and Stusek sent an open letter Friday to the Supreme Court, saying they hope the court will not select someone who has been considered and rejected by the commission on May 13.
Essmann specifically mentioned former Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat, who was nominated by the panel’s Democratic members and rejected by Essmann and Stusek. Wheat also is a former Democratic state senator from Bozeman.
Stusek said delegates of the 1972 Montana Constitution Convention, who created the commission and the process for its chair selection, wanted that person to be an impartial tie-breaker and not someone who would take partisan sides.
“There have been abuses by both Democrats and Republicans in redistricting efforts in other states across the country, and we don’t need to go down that road,” he said in a statement.
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News