Judge scolds Montana’s largest school district for unfair maps, but says May 2 election can proceed

By: - April 21, 2023 6:15 pm

Greta Besch-Moen speaks during a school board meeting in the Lincoln Center in Billings, Montana on April 5, 2022 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

A federal judge has ruled that elections for Montana’s largest public school district can continue in several weeks, while chastising the school board for not properly updating its election maps and violating the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal weight to every vote.

In a ruling that essentially forced federal court judge Brian M. Morris between two difficult positions — halt the election with just weeks to go, or allow unequal voting districts — he ruled the best of the two options was to allow the election for three school board trustees to continue, but not without scolding Billings Public Schools.

“The court recognizes the difficult situation in which the board’s delay has placed plaintiffs,” Morris said. “The inordinate delays between July of 2022 and February of 2023 by the board in adopting the new map forced this dilemma upon plaintiffs. The court will not countenance further delays in adopting the new map in the future.”

Comments from Billings Public Schools were not immediately available on Friday afternoon.

“It is disappointing that even through the legitimate, legal action taken by us, the school board was not required to complete their work and allow citizens to fairly and equitably elect board members this election cycle,” said resident Michael Scheppele, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Continuing with district maps based on the prior 2010 Census is further justification to replace the current slate of trustees with responsible candidates serving the common interests of the voting public.”

Morris’ ruling largely sided with Scheppele and James Wilson, who took legal action after the Billings Public School Board, excluding the high school district, failed to adopt new districts based on the 2020 Census. They were represented by attorney Joel Krautter of Netzer, Krautter and Brown.

In the intervening decade, population trends changed throughout Montana’s largest city, and the voting districts were disproportionate. District 1 has a population of 15,327 while District 6’s population stands at 18,535, a difference of 19%.

Repeatedly, federal courts have recognized that any deviation of more than 10% is assumed unconstitutional on its face, while lower differences may also be a violation of law.

“The Fourteenth Amendment’s one-person, one-vote rule confirms that a voter ‘has a constitutional right to have his vote counted with substantially the same weight as that of any other voter,’” Morris said in the decision. “The deprivation of this constitutional right ‘unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’”

Even though Morris found the districts were clearly unbalanced, and a violation of law, he turned to other federal guidance, which said that in these very specific circumstances, the courts must weigh the factors to do the least harm.

“Courts may allow an election to proceed under an unlawful plan when these circumstances arise,” Morris said. “(Because) courts should ‘consider the proximity of a forthcoming election and the mechanics and complexities of state election laws’ in determining whether to enjoin an election.”

Ultimately, Morris said that while the votes were unequal and a violation that the public would stand more harm by halting the election, waiting for new maps to be approved correctly, and risking that public school business would slow or stop.

“The court determines that it would not be feasible to enjoin the 2023 Election,” Morris said. “The court emphasizes that the overall balance … of factors does not favor indefinitely postponing this election.”

The ballots for the race have already went to voters, and the election will be held on May 2.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.