Lawsuit challenges Montana PSC district boundaries

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Posted at 7:09 PM, Jul 08, 2024

HELENA — For the second time in three years, a lawsuit is challenging the district lines used to elect the members of Montana’s Public Service Commission. The two sides in the case met Monday in a Helena courtroom, as a judge considers how a trial should be conducted.

The PSC has five members, each elected from a geographical district. They’re responsible for regulating public utilities, railroads and other industries in the state.

PSC districts have been at the center of legal disputes since 2021, when plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit, claiming they were invalid because their populations were too unequal. The district lines hadn’t been updated since 2003, and population shifts meant some districts had significantly more residents than others. The federal court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and drew its own map, used during the 2022 PSC elections.

In 2023, the Montana Legislature came up with its own plan. Senate Bill 109, which passed with support from majority Republicans, switched from drawing districts based on county lines to using the newly created state legislative districts. The new map also split the state’s largest cities, including Billings, Missoula, Bozeman and Great Falls, between two districts.

After the new map went into effect, a group of plaintiffs – including eight individuals and the organization Montana Conservation Voters – sued in state court, saying SB 109 was a partisan gerrymander intended to give Republicans control in all five districts. They argued the law denied other voters a real opportunity to influence the election results in their districts, and that the map was selected because of those effects, not in spite of it. Plaintiffs said the law was an unconstitutional violation of the rights of suffrage and equal protection.

Attorneys for the state, defending the law, said the map wasn’t an intentional gerrymander and that leaders had legitimate interests in bringing it forward. When introducing SB 109 on the Senate floor last year, sponsor Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, argued the use of legislative districts ensured the five districts’ populations would remain more equal, and that splitting larger communities would mean two commissioners looking out for their interests instead of one.

Monday’s hearing focused on whether the trial in this case should be before a jury. State attorneys asked for a jury, saying it was appropriate for them to decide factual questions like the intent behind the legislation.

“Even if the court said, ‘Okay, I'm not going to put that on to the jury, that would be for the judge,’ causation is clearly a fact issue, and whether there was other justification for it is clearly a fact issue,” said Thane Johnson, an assistant attorney general.

Plaintiffs said there’s no history of gerrymandering cases going before juries, and that the type of questions at issue here are more appropriate for a judge to decide.

“The court is able to instruct the jury on what crosses the line into unlawful discrimination,” said attorney Dimitrios Tsolakidis, referring to another type of case where he said a jury might make more sense. “There is no pattern here for instructing the jury on how much partisanship is permissible in a political gerrymandering case.”

Regardless of whether a jury is called or not, the trial is scheduled to start December 10.

Three seats on the PSC are open in this year’s elections, and those races will be held under the new district lines. In February, District Judge Chris Abbott denied plaintiffs’ request to put an injunction on the new map. He said plaintiffs had a good chance of showing the map was unconstitutional, but that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for the court to draw its own lines at this time. He said in the ruling that he hoped the case would be resolved before the 2025 legislative session, giving the Legislature a chance to try to get in compliance if the final ruling goes against SB 109.