The Idaho Supreme Court heard arguments in four separate lawsuits brought against the state's redistricting commission on Friday, all of them challenging various aspects of the new legislative district map.
The bipartisan Idaho Commission for Reapportionment is tasked every 10 years with redrawing voting districts based on the most recent census. Idaho has been one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, and the commissioners examined where that growth occurred and attempted to create districts roughly equal in population with about 52,000 residents each. The commission is required to map new legislative districts that do not have more than a 10% population variance, and they are supposed to avoid dividing counties into multiple districts as much as possible.
Former state lawmaker Branden Durst was the first to sue, contending that the map redrawing Idaho's 35 legislative districts is unconstitutional because it splits up more counties than necessary. Commissioners in Ada County also sued over the number of county splits. Spencer Stucki, a Chubbuck resident, sued to challenge the way districts are redrawn in southeastern Idaho.
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe in northern Idaho and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in southern Idaho also sued, each group contending that the map wrongly split their respective reservations into different districts without regard for the fact that they are each “communities of interest" should be maintained together as much as possible.
The tribes are the most “unique and cohesive” communities of interest in the state, their attorney Deborah Ferguson told the Idaho Supreme Court justices, comparing them to members of an extended family. The new maps splitting the Coeur d'Alene Tribe into two districts and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes into three districts just continues the state's long history of discrimination and neglect against Idaho's earliest residents, Ferguson said.
Durst's attorney Bryan Smith told the high court that the redistricting map was illegal because it splits eight counties “externally” by taking pieces of each and adding it to a county in a different district. Smith said a redistricting map created by Durst showed the districts can be created with only seven counties being externally split, and that state law requires the commission to split counties as little as possible.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lorna Jorgensen, representing Ada County, took similar issue with how some parts of Ada County and neighboring Canyon County — which together hold about 40% of the state's population — were split.
“Over 75,000 people of Ada county were parsed out to other surrounding counties,” Jorgensen said. “With Canyon County, over 70,000 people were parsed out three times to surrounding counties.”
None of the next five largest counties in the state were externally split, Jorgensen noted.
But Megan Larrondo, the deputy attorney general representing the commission, said diligent and careful work by the commission showed that there was simply no way to split fewer counties and still come up with a map that met all of the legal requirements set out under state and federal law.
The commission carried out a “herculean task of redistricting a state with complex geography, political boundaries, population distribution and legal requirements,” Larrondo said.
Drafted maps that split just seven counties all violated other redistricting rules, such as by giving residents in some regions more voting power than others, she said.
Larrondo also said the commission took public testimony from across the state, and contended that Coeur d'Alene Tribe leaders told the commission that keeping the tribe in one district was “not the priority.” She said keeping the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in a single district violated the state laws on how counties should be handled, and so the commission's “hands were tied.”
The Idaho Supreme Court is expected to issue a written ruling sometime in coming weeks on whether or not the commission will have to redraw the map.
A fifth lawsuit from Elmore County resident Christopher Pentico targets the way the new U.S. congressional district map splits some local voting precinct boundary lines. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for Jan. 24.
This story has been corrected to show that the Idaho Supreme Court heard oral arguments in four of the five redistricting lawsuits on Friday. Arguments in the fifth case are scheduled for Jan. 24.