The Idaho Supreme Court heard legal challenges to the state’s adopted legislative redistricting plan on Friday, Jan. 14.
Arguments in a separate case challenging the congressional redistricting plan are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Monday, January 24.
Here’s a writeup of the courtroom action by Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun:
Idaho Supreme Court justices spent more than two hours Friday afternoon hearing oral arguments from four challenges to the state’s new redistricting plan.
Some of the central questions in the case came down to how — and how often — to divide the state’s 44 counties into 35 legislative districts as close to equal size as possible.
The five justices took the challenges under consideration at the end Friday’s hearing, which was conducted entirely remotely using Zoom. They did not issue a ruling or indicate a deadline for issuing one.
Timing is somewhat of a factor. The official window for Idaho political candidates to file declarations to run for office in the 2022 primary election is scheduled to open Feb. 28. If the redistricting plan is ruled unconstitutional and thrown out, that could make it difficult to have official political boundaries in place when the filing period opens. The primary elections are scheduled for May 17.
At the outset of Friday’s hearing, Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was presiding over the hearing from home. He said his symptoms were mild and he was ready to go.
On Wednesday, the Idaho Supreme Court’s communications manager announced the hearing had been moved entirely online.
What is redistricting and why is it being challenged?
The purpose of the hearing was to consider oral arguments from four challenges to the new legislative map created as part of Idaho’s redistricting process, which wrapped up in November 2021.
Redistricting takes place in states across the country every 10 years following a new census. In Idaho, redistricting is the process of using that new census data to redraw the state’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts. Redistricting is required under the Idaho Constitution and the U.S. Constitution to satisfy the principle of “one person, one vote.”
The old maps are thrown out because of population changes from decade to decade. Over the past decade Idaho was the second-fastest growing state in the country, according to the 2020 census.
The four challenges are each different, but generally speaking, three of them allege the redistricting plan is unconstitutional because it splits eight Idaho counties when members of the public submitted maps that split just seven counties.
Ada County commissioners filed one of the challenges, and one of their arguments was that the county’s population justified nine legislative districts but only received eight. As a result, some 75,000 Ada County residents were parceled out to legislative districts in surrounding counties, deputy Ada County prosecuting attorney Lorna K. Jorgensen said.
“So why is this case so important to the bipartisan board of Ada County commissioners?” Jorgensen said during the hearing. “The results of this case will affect legislative representation for almost 40% of the state’s population for the next 10 years, and into the future. (The legislative map) is unconstitutional because it divides too many counties.”
A fourth challenge also alleges that the reservations of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes were improperly divided and should have been protected as communities of interest.
“I want to focus first on the tribes as communities of interest,” said Deborah Ferguson, an attorney representing the tribes. “Under Idaho law, communities of interest must be preserved — not just considered, but preserved — in redistricting to the maximum extent possible. And the Native American tribes, the Sho-Bans and the Coeur d’Alene, are extraordinary communities of interest, and much more so, I would submit, than cities or towns.”
For redistricting, the redistricting commissioners had to juggle all sorts of constitutional and legal requirements and attempt to act within the constraints of previous court rulings on the case. They had to try to minimize splitting counties, avoid dividing communities of interest (which could include Native American tribal reservations or school districts), minimize population differences between the different districts, avoid drawing oddly shaped, irregular districts and keep politics and the impact to incumbent elected officials out of consideration.
“Doesn’t the idiosyncrasies of Idaho’s unusual shape play a role in all of this?” Justice Gregory W. Moeller asked during the hearing. “Isn’t one of the reasons why it’s easier to divide up southern and eastern Idaho because it’s a big fat rectangle, with many counties touching and abuting each other in all directions whereas in North Idaho you have this very narrow rectangle and several of the counties only abut one or two other counties, making it virtually impossible to redistrict up there without having to divide counties such as Bonner or Boundary?”
It was not immediately clear how long it would take the justices to issue a ruling. In 2021, the Idaho Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a ballot initiative case on June 29 and issued a ruling Aug. 23. In 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra vs. the Idaho Legislature on June 5 and issued a ruling on June 22 of the same year, Idaho Education News reported.
New redistricting maps are available online
The new maps of political boundaries approved by Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission are available under the “adopted plans” tab on the commission’s website. The new legislative map is called L03, while the new congressional map is called C03. Maps submitted by the public are also available under the “maps” tab of the website.
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