ACLU Appeals Court Ruling on Indian Vote Dilution in Montana

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
February 4, 2002 12:00 am

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HELENA, MT–The ACLU of Montana along with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project today announced they will appeal a federal district court decision that dismisses a lawsuit which sought to establish an additional Indian majority district in time for the 2002 state legislature elections.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro of Nevada ruled on January 28 that a 1992 redistricting plan did not dilute Indian voters’ ability to elect candidates in Glacier and Lake counties.

“”This decision was handed down despite the fact that both the Ninth Circuit and the district court acknowledged a history of discrimination affecting Montana Indians’ right to vote,”” said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. “”We are asking for an expedited appeal in the hopes that a favorable ruling could force the formation of a new Senate district for this year’s legislative elections.””

The lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of tribal members Earl Old Person, Carol Juneau, Joe MacDonald, and Jeannine Padilla was originally filed in 1996 and successfully challenged the 1992 districting plan implemented by the Districting and Apportionment Commission.

In 2000, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found a district judge’s reasoning to be faulty and sent back the decision for the court to consider elements of racism in the drawing of district lines.

The district court found, as did the Ninth Circuit, that Indians were geographically compact and could form a majority in one or more legislative districts. Both jurisdictions found that Indians were politically cohesive and voted as a group, while whites voted as a bloc usually to defeat candidates favored by Indian voters.

The courts also found that: “”American Indians suffered from a history of discrimination by the federal government and the State of Montana,”” that “there was continued racial polarization” in the 1998 and 2000 legislative elections, and there were “overt or subtle racial appeals” in recent elections.

But in his Jan. 28 decision, Judge Pro ruled that there was no Voting Rights Act violation because, he implied, Indians had been elected in two of the house districts and one of the senate districts in the Lake and Glacier Counties area.

That conclusion is incorrect, according to Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. He pointed out that a Senate district in Glacier County that includes the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is not a majority Indian district and that the 2000 victory of Indian candidate Joey Jayne in a majority white House district in Lake County — which also includes the Flathead reservation — was a “”fluke.””

Jayne’s only opponent was a member of the Constitution Party, a splinter party whose platform included repeal of the Voting Rights Act, a ban on the use of bilingual ballots, repeal of the Internal Revenue Service, and U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations and NATO. Despite all this, Jayne won by only 54 votes; her opponent, running on a platform that was distinctly antithetical to the interests of Indians, got a majority (62 percent) of the white votes.

Only one Indian representative serves in the state senate, Gerald Pease, and he was elected from a senate district that encompasses the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in the southern part of the state. Plaintiff Carol Juneau was elected from House District 85 in Glacier County, but the district is majority Indian.

Further, as the court of appeals held in vacating the first decision of the district court, the fact that an Indian can win in a majority Indian district “”does not lessen the significance of white bloc voting in neighboring majority-white jurisdictions.””

McDonald noted that Judge Pro also based his opinion on the fact that the current Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is taking steps to provide “”comprehensive and long-termed relief designed to address vote dilution” by creating an additional majority Indian house district and an additional majority Indian senate district in the Lake and Glacier Counties area.

“”While we certainly applaud the efforts of the commission and its recognition that the existing plan dilutes Indian voting strength,” he said, “we believe that Indian voters are entitled to fair elections now, and not two years later in 2004.””

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