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Idaho Supreme Court hears arguments in challenge to new congressional district boundaries

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On Jan. 24, Idaho Supreme Court justices listened to arguments during a legal challenge to the redistricting commission’s map to set congressional boundaries. (Screen shot courtesy of Idaho Public Television)

Political candidate filing windows open late next month, adding to the urgency of the case

Idaho Supreme Court justices spent an hour Monday hearing arguments over whether the new congressional boundaries drawn by the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission should be declared illegal and thrown out.

With just five weeks to go before the candidate filing period opens ahead of the 2022 primary elections, the case took on a new sense of urgency.

There were two big questions from Elmore County resident Christopher Pentico’s challenge to the congressional boundary plan under consideration in the arguments.

  • Did Idaho’s redistricting commission submit its plan to the Secretary of State’s Office within the 90-day deadline?
  • Does the congressional map and plan violate Idaho law, or not, by splitting six voting precincts in Ada County? Pentico and his attorney say the precincts should not be split, but the deputy attorney general representing the redistricting commission says those precinct boundaries are being redrawn anyway and would not be in place going forward. 

The justices took the matter under consideration and did not issue a ruling or set a deadline for doing so Monday. Monday’s hearing was conducted in person at the Lincoln Room in the Idaho Supreme Court building and streamed online via Idaho Public Television’s Idaho in Session service.
Monday’s case was different from another redistricting case involving legislative boundaries the Idaho Supreme Court heard earlier this month. That case is also under consideration, and no ruling has been released to decide it yet.

Challenge alleges Idaho redistricting commission missed deadline

The two sides heard in arguments over the congressional redistricting plan were at odds over the deadline throughout Monday’s hearing.

Pentico and his attorney Edward Dindinger said the 90-day clock should have started ticking when Secretary of State Lawerence Denney issued an order authorizing the redistricting commission on Aug. 12.

“It is only by having hard, enforceable deadlines that consistency in carrying out the people’s work can be assured,” Dindinger told justices.

Megan Larrondo, the deputy Idaho attorney general representing the redistricting commission and Denney, said the 90-day clock doesn’t start ticking until the commission holds its first meeting and appoints a chairperson, which happened Sept. 1.

Redistricting commissioners voted to approve the congressional and legislative plans Nov. 10 and submitted them Nov. 12.

Dindinger and Pentico believe the deadline for submitting the plan was Nov. 10 and the commissioners were late. Larrondo and the redistricting commission believed from the outset of the process the deadline was Nov. 30 and commissioners submitted the plan on time.

Is it OK to split voting precincts in Ada County?

The other big issue from Monday’s hearing zeroed in on the new map of congressional boundaries, which splits six voting precincts in Ada County, the state’s most populated county.

Dindinger and Pentico pointed to a section of Idaho law that states redistricting commissioners “…shall retain the local voting precinct boundary lines …”

Larrondo pointed out that Ada County officials told redistricting commissioners that the precinct boundaries would be redrawn based on the new redistricting maps anyway. Ada County officials then moved forward with a public hearing Jan. 13 to discuss precinct changes.

“Again this would handcuff the commission to old precinct lines that it categorically knew would no longer exist,” Larrondo told justices.

Larrondo said there are numerous requirements for redistricting that must be followed, and she pointed to the same section of Idaho law that Dindinger referenced. She highlighted a process that allows redistricting commissioners to waive the precinct requirement in the event they cannot comply with each requirement, preserve traditional neighborhoods, create districts that are “substantially equal” in population, avoid drawing oddly shaped districts, avoid dividing counties whenever possible and retain voting precincts.

At one point in the hearing, Idaho Supreme Court Justice Gregory W. Moeller disagreed with Dindinger’s characterization that the redistricting commission’s congressional boundaries were “arbitrary.”

“… The commission’s lines appear to be reasonably based on actual geographic and political subdivisions,” Moeller told Dindinger in the hearing.

“I guess my point though is you called something arbitrary, but if it’s actually following actual roads and actual county lines, it’s hard to call that arbitrary, as opposed to a plan that just juts south through Ada County that doesn’t appear to follow anything objective other than maybe precinct lines,” Moeller added.

What is redistricting and how does it work?

Redistricting is the process of redrawing the state’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts using new U.S. Census Bureau data. The process takes place every 10 years, and it is required under the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho Constitution to ensure political representation is as equally divided as possible.

Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission (three commissioners were appointed by Democrats and three were appointed by Republicans) held a series of public meetings across the state this fall before approving new congressional and legislative boundaries based on 2020 census data on Nov. 10.

This is the second recent redistricting case Idaho Supreme Court justices have heard. On Jan. 14 justices spent more than two hours hearing arguments from four challenges to the redistricting commission’s legislative map and plan.

Will the boundaries be settled in time for the May primary elections?

Timing has been an issue for the redistricting process from the outset. COVID-19-related delays caused the U.S. Census Bureau to deliver its population data months later than it normally would to the state. That meant there was less time remaining until the next upcoming election and less breathing room or margin for error involving any challenges or gridlocks.

Attorneys and justices discussed the timing issues Monday. The new political boundaries are supposed to be in place beginning with the 2022 primary elections, which are scheduled for May 17. The official filing period for candidates to declare candidacy heading into those primaries open on Feb. 28. After that, counties begin preparing ballots.

“Until legal district boundaries are set and confirmed, incumbents and challengers alike, but especially the latter, cannot know what positions they are eligible to run for, let alone maximize their fundraising and campaign effectiveness,” Dindinger said.

If the Idaho Supreme Court throws out the redistricting plans — and potentially calls for the creation of a new redistricting commission — it could be difficult to get the political boundaries approved and settled before the Feb. 28 filing declaration window opens.

Once approved, the new political boundaries would be in place for 10 years. The next census is scheduled for 2030.