HELEN — A federal court Thursday set a March 4 trial for deciding whether and how to redraw Montana’s five Public Service Commission districts this election year – and blocked the state from certifying any candidates running for the two PSC seats up for election.
Thursday’s order from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the current districts appear to be unconstitutional, because of wide population disparities – and that the only question may be how to redraw them.
The court said it intends to resolve the issue before March 14, which is Montana’s last day that candidates can file to run for PSC districts 1 and 5 this year.
The order also came on the first day of candidate filing for the 2022 election in Montana – and two candidates did file Thursday for the PSC: Republican Derek Skees of Kalispell in District 5 and Commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River, a Republican running for re-election in District 1.
Given the court’s decision, it’s possible that Skees and Pinocci could end up running in redrawn districts – if they still live in a district that is up for election this year.
The order comes in a lawsuit filed last month by former Secretary of State Bob Brown, former Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert and Montana State University student Hailey Sinoff, alleging that Montana’s five PSC districts are unconstitutional, because they violate the one-person, one-vote rule.
The PSC regulates gas, electric, water and other utilities in Montana and its five commissioners are elected by district. The districts were last redrawn in 2003.
Since then, population of the districts has become wildly unequal, with the difference between District 1 – a mostly rural district stretching across Montana’s northern tier – and District 3, which includes rapidly growing Bozeman, approaching 25 percent, the suit said.
Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state’s top election official and the defendant in the lawsuit, told the court that the decision to redraw the districts should be left to the next Legislature in 2023, for the 2024 election.
But the court rejected that argument Thursday, saying the Legislature has had ample opportunity to adjust the districts since 2003, but has failed to do so. It also said if the Legislature really wants to solve the issue, it could call itself into special session before the March 14 candidate filing deadline.
“… To allow the candidate certification to proceed based on an a presumptively unconstitutional map – and despite plaintiffs showing that irreparable harm is likely occurring – for the sake of legislative public comment without assured action would teeter close to elevating form over substance,” the court said.
The court set an expedited schedule for various filings, discovery and other pre-trial matters, before the March 4 trial in Missoula, when the judges would decide what to do.
The judges on the panel are Donald Molloy and Brian Morris of Montana and Paul Watford of California.