Redistricting: Montana Supreme Court names commission chairwoman

Matt Volz Associated Press
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday selected a former higher education commissioner as the crucial tiebreaking member of a redistricting commission that will redraw the state's legislative map after the 2020 census.

Sheila Stearns will be the chairwoman and the only nonpartisan member of the five-person Montana Redistricting Commission, which sets the boundaries of the state's 100 House and 50 Senate districts every decade to align with population changes.

If Montana gains a second U.S. House seat, the commission also will divide the state into two congressional districts.

Stearns will be the deciding vote when there are partisan deadlocks between the panel’s two Democrats and two Republicans in sensitive decisions in balancing the districts so that one party doesn’t gain too large of an advantage.

“Dr. Stearns has a unique and impeccable resume of distinguished nonpartisan public service and leadership to the citizens of Montana,” said Justice Dirk Sandefur, who nominated her.

Stearns said she did not seek the position but was approached by Chief Justice Mike McGrath.

“I think people who know me know I’m willing to step into public service roles and have been through most of my career, even when they’re not going to be easy,” she said.

Stearns is from Glendive. A former teacher and university administrator, she was the state’s commissioner of higher education from 2003 until she retired in 2012. She also served as University of Montana’s interim president in 2017 and Montana State University Billings’ interim chancellor in 2014.

She was one of two women the justices nominated for the post, the second being former U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby. Justice Beth Baker, who nominated Ostby, said it was important to her that a woman be appointed to the male-dominated commission, and that Montana would be lucky to have either Stearns or Ostby in that role.

The other commission members are Republicans Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek, and Democrats Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller.

The selection of the fifth commissioner fell to the state’s high court after the other four panel members couldn’t agree on a chairman earlier this month.

The court’s vote came after Essmann and Stusek asked the court to delay the appointment to allow more public input into the nominees. The court voted 5-2 to hold the vote that same day.

Esmmann, a former state legislator, said he knows and respects Stearns. “I have hopes that we will have a neutral arbiter,” he said.

The results of the census aren’t expected until 2022. The commission must present its plan to the Legislature for approval in 2023, with the new map to be in place for the 2024 elections.

“I will certainly begin now to get to know my fellow commissioners, have conversations with them and (learn) how process has worked before,” she said.