On December 6, 2021 a former Montana Secretary of State and three Montana residents filed a federal lawsuit against Montana's Secretary of State, challenging the Montana Public Service Commission's ("PSC") electoral districts as violating the U.S. Constitution. The PSC, which regulates the state's public utilities and handles ratepayers' disputes, is a five-member body elected from single-member districts, which had not been redrawn since 2003. Plaintiffs alleged based off the 2020 Census population figures, the state's PSC districts were unconstitutionally malapportioned in violation of the 14th Amendment's one person, one vote principle, citing a total population deviation range between the then-current districts of 24.5%. Plaintiffs sought a judicial declaration that the then-current PSC districts violated the 14th Amendment, an injunction barring the state from utilizing those districts in future elections, and a court order either requiring the state to adopt and implement a new, properly apportioned PSC redistricting plan or adopting a court-drawn remedial plan.

On January 13, 2022 the three-judge panel district court granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction barring the certification of PSC candidates in Districts 1 and 5, pending a final disposition on the merits. A bench trial was held on March 4. Four days later, the district court panel issued its opinion striking down the PSC plan as unconstitutionally malapportioned in violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The court first found the Commission to be a "statewide legislative body" subject to the one person, one vote constitutional requirements because its members are elected from single-members districts statewide and they exercise "general governmental powers" which broadly impact the general public in Montana. Next, the court declined to abstain from declaring the districts unconstitutional until after the 2023 legislative session on the grounds the current districts were unconstitutional and the 2022 elections were quickly approaching, thereby imposing upon the federal court the "unwelcome obligation" to devise and impose a plan for use in the upcoming elections absent action by the Montana legislature. Turning to the remedy, the court noted the more stringent equal population constitutional standards applicable to judicially-imposed redistricting plans and the deference which must be afforded to the policies and preferences of the state when selecting between the plaintiffs' and the defendant-Secretary of State's proposed redistricting plans. The court explained these principles required it to select the Secretary of State's proposed redistricting plan, despite its larger population variances, out of deference to the state and its policies, albeit with one minor change made to bring the plan more within the heightened equal population standards. The court ordered the plan, as modified, be implemented for use in future elections absent action by the Montana legislature.


U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Helena Division - No. 6:21-cv-92