Idaho Supreme Court strikes down challenges to new legislative political boundaries

The Idaho Supreme Court has rejected challenges to the state’s new legislative district map.

The court released a unanimous opinion Thursday, rejecting petitions that argued the map released by Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission violated the Idaho Constitution.

Legal challengers argued the commission violated the Idaho Constitution and state law by dividing too many counties — eight — and “communities of interest,” such as tribal reservations. The lawsuits presented a challenge to the commission’s discretion in splitting counties and communities.

The justices backed the commission’s discretion in this case.

“We hold that petitioners have failed to meet their burden of showing that the commission unreasonably determined that eight county splits were necessary to afford Idaho’s citizens equal protection of the law,” Justice John R. Stegner wrote in the opinion, with other justices concurring.

The decision also disavowed a previous court’s ruling, which struck down a 2011 legislative map because it had split more counties than another proposed map.

The Idaho Constitution instructs redistricting commissions to split counties only when absolutely necessary. It says that counties may be divided “only to the extent it is reasonably determined by statute that counties must be divided” to create districts “which comply with the Constitution of the United States.”

Justices favor equal protection clause

Thursday’s ruling said the previous court’s interpretation failed to consider language in the Idaho Constitution that says a county can be divided if the commission “reasonably determined” it’s necessary to comply with the equal protection clause. The clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — better known as the “one person, one vote” provision — states that legislative districts must be about equal in population to ensure the weight of a person’s vote isn’t based on geography.

“We now take this opportunity to disavow our decision … to the extent it failed to give effect to the ‘reasonably determined’ language” in the Idaho Constitution, Thursday’s ruling said.

The bipartisan Idaho Commission for Reapportionment is tasked every 10 years with redrawing voting districts, the boundaries for state House and Senate offices, based on the most recent census.

While the commission’s map had a less than 6% population deviation in each district, the alternative plans favored by the challengers deviated at or just under 10%, the generally accepted maximum standard.

The challengers were Branden Durst, a former state legislator; Ada and Canyon counties; Spencer Stucki of Chubbuck; Chief J. Allan, Coeur d’Alene tribal chairman; and Devon Boyer, Shoshone-Bannock tribal chairman. Megan A. Larrondo, deputy attorney general for Idaho, defended the commission.

The lawsuits sought to remand the map back to the redistricting commission, which would’ve been required to elect new members and select new boundaries. After surviving the legal challenge, the commission’s preferred map will establish districts for the May primary election.

Court upholds reservation divisions

The court also rejected an argument that the commission unnecessarily divided reservations and decimated electoral influence of two Idaho tribes.

The commission split the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s reservation into two legislative districts and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ reservation into three, while dividing the Shoshone-Bannock reservation’s two largest population clusters.

Deborah Ferguson, an attorney representing the tribes, argued the commission violated Idaho law — which states that “to the maximum extent possible, districts shall preserve traditional neighborhoods and local communities of interest.”

Again, the court sided with the commission’s discretion to balance federal and state law.

“When competing interests are at stake, it is the commission’s responsibility — entrusted to it by the people of Idaho — to determine how best to balance those interests, and we will not substitute our own views for the commission’s,” Stegner wrote. “We are unable to raise community interests, such as the tribes’, above the counties’ interests, which are protected to a greater degree by the Idaho constitution. To afford the Tribes the heightened status they seek, an amendment to the state constitution would be required.”