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Will the U.S Supreme Court review Idaho’s new political districts? Ada County hopes so.

The Ada County Courthouse in Boise on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The Ada County Courthouse in Boise on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday

The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday asking the court to review the Idaho Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld a new redistricting plan, county officials confirmed.

The plan went into effect before May’s primary elections, setting new boundaries for Idaho’s legislative and congressional districts. The process isn’t new; it happens every 10 years as a way to ensure political representation is fair, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not signaled whether or not it will review the Idaho Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling upholding the redistricting plan. If the U.S. Supreme Court did take up the case and threw out Idaho’s redistricting plan, the fallout could be particularly messy because Idahoans have already voted in the May 17 primary elections that included the new electoral maps.

A bipartisan group of six redistricting commissioners created and approved Idaho’s redistricting plan and maps in November and the Idaho Supreme Court upheld that plan in a unanimous ruling handed down Jan. 27.

Ada County was one of the parties that unsuccessfully challenged the plan before the Idaho Supreme Court.

With Thursday’s petition, Ada County officials are now attempting to elevate their challenge to the highest court in the United States.

Thursday’s filing wasn’t a surprise. On May 17, the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office requested a 45-day extensionto a May 30 deadline to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a review. Ada County prosecutors asked for the extension after citing medical issues a member of the legal team was dealing with.

Online U.S. Supreme Court records indicate Justice Elena Kagan granted the extension and set Ada County’s deadline for Thursday.

Ada County Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Emily Lowe told the Idaho Capital Sun on Wednesday that the county would submit its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday. Ada County spokeswoman Elizabeth Duncan confirmed to the Sun that Ada County did file the petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. As of this article’s publication Thursday night, it did not appear the petition was available to view yet on the U.S. Supreme Court’s website.

Why is Ada County seeking a Supreme Court review?

For months, Ada County officials have voiced opposition to how the new legislative and congressional districts carve up the state’s most populated county.

In November, Ada County Commissioners Ryan Davidson, Kendra Kenyon and Rod Beck filed a petition with the Idaho Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the redistricting plan. Beck and Davidson are Republicans. Kenyon is a Democrat.

They alleged the legislative map from the redistricting plan should be thrown out because it divided up eight Idaho counties, whereas some maps submitted by the public split up seven counties. They also objected to the specific way their county was divided, saying the map divides fast-growing, urban parts of Ada County and combines them with less populated rural areas in neighboring counties.

“… It takes a portion of northern Ada County and joins it with Gem County for a district anyway,” Ada County commissioners wrote in their original challenge in November. “The Commission then takes a slice of Ada County to the west and joins it with Canyon County for another district. Finally, it takes southern Ada County and joins it with Owyhee County and Canyon County for another district.”

Heading into the process, Idaho’s redistricting commissioners knew there would be challengesto whatever plans and maps they came up with because ofthe difficulty of dividing the state and the political nature of the work.

Idaho’s redistricting commission approved legislative map L03 on Nov. 10. This section of the map shows much of the Treasure Valley. (Courtesy of Idaho Commission For Reapportionment)
Idaho’s redistricting commission approved legislative map L03 on Nov. 10. This section of the map shows much of the Treasure Valley. (Courtesy of Idaho Commission For Reapportionment)

The redistricting commissioners’ assignment called for them to figure out a way to divide Idaho’s 44 counties into exactly 35 legislative districts, while minimizing population differences between the districts and trying to avoid splitting up counties and communities of interest such as cities, school districts or neighborhoods.

Redistricting commissioners based their plans and map on 2020 census data and input gathered at 18 public hearings conducted across the state.

While they were drawing maps, commissioners told the Sun they focused on reducing the population differences between the districts in order to satisfy the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.” They knew they had to split some counties because there are more Idaho counties (44) than legislative districts (35). If commissioners split fewer counties, the population differences between the districts would increase.

“The final version strikes the right balance,” redistricting commissioner Nels Mitchell told the Sun in an interview last year. “All of the districts are pretty close to parity in terms of population. In addition, we tried to minimize moving districts entirely.”

In their January ruling, Idaho Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that the redistricting plan did not violate state laws. Justices also ruled that splitting the fewest number of counties possible was not the only consideration.

“Due to Idaho’s unique geography and the supremacy of federal law, there is unavoidable tension between the Idaho Constitution’s restraint against splitting counties and the Federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause,” Idaho Supreme Court Justice John Stegner wrote in the opinion. “Navigating this tension is no easy feat.”

In attempting to push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ada County prosecutors argued that the Idaho Supreme Court improperly deferred to the redistricting commission.

“This left the Reapportionment Commission in the position to decide whether its own plan, and three other plans submitted by the public complied with federal equal protection requirements,” Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Jan Bennetts and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lorna Jorgensen wrote in their May 17 filing seeking the deadline extension with the U.S. Supreme Court. “The Reapportionment Commission found its own plan complied with equal protection requirements while the three other publicly submitted plans did not comply with equal protection requirements.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.