Former Chief Justice Jim Jones, who gets his kicks these days writing independent political columns, can put together mind-numbing legal opinions with the best of them. He has written plenty of those during his 13-year career with the Idaho Supreme Court.
Thankfully, he uses more understandable (legalize free) language in his weekly columns. He’s often blunt in conversations.
So, what does this great legal mind think of the legislative district lines that are used today? “It’s a piece of garbage,” he said.
Do I hear an “Amen” or two from Shoshone and Bonner counties? They have to go all the way to Grangeville – and as far as Riggins – to find their senator or state representative.
Don’t blame Jones for this mess. He wrote the dissenting opinion that opposed this crazy configuration. But the court’s majority was hung up on the concept of “one man, one vote,” which means that the legislative districts are at least close to the same size in population. Of course, if you are living in Wallace, “one man, one vote” means one man casting one vote for a state representative that might as well be living on Mars.
To make it more absurd, they could have paired Shoshone County with Canyon County. Right, Jim? “Yeah, why not,” he said jokingly.
It would make more sense if Shoshone County had at least one state legislator from Kootenai County, or if people in Bonner County could reach out to someone closer to Sandpoint. But the court wouldn’t go for that.
“The court put so much weight on creating the smallest number possible of (county) boundary splits,” Jones said. “Therefore, we’re left with a district that you’re talking about and one district (District 8) that goes all the way from Challis to Horseshoe Bend, with a mountain range in between. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Don’t lay this one on the independent redistricting commission, consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats. Jones said that group worked well together. As Jones explains, the court had a “perfectly good plan” in front of them “and allowed a crappier plan to go into effect.”
The redistricting issue popped up early in this legislative session when Republicans attempted to push through a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a seventh member of the redistricting commission to break ties. That idea, justifiably, was shot down by Democrats, claiming that a seventh member (selected by Republicans) would promote gerrymandering – giving Republicans even more strength in Idaho.
Jones agrees that would be a bad idea. Having even numbers of Republicans and Democrats motivates people to work together for a bipartisan resolution. Jones says a better idea is for the Legislature to provide the court with better guidance on legislative intent as it pertains to redistricting. Next year would be a good time to tackle that issue. Legislators also might think about tweaking the constitution in a couple of instances.
“I think the court would listen, because that’s what they based their decision on last time – the statute … We had to follow the statute,” Jones said.
A more reasonable approach in the next round of redistricting would be to pay more attention to geography and factors such as “communities with common interests,” and not so much on county boundary lines. Jones thinks the constitution should be changed to allow for a maximum of 15 county splits, to help accommodate communities with common interests.
“That’s my position, and I’m sticking to it,” Jones says.
House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley has another idea – to expand the number of legislative districts from 35 to, perhaps, as many as 38. That could help reduce the mammoth size of some districts, giving citizens representation that’s closer to home.
In either case, Jones and Bedke are talking about making the redistricting process better than what it is. If you’re living in Shoshone or Bonner counties, it couldn’t be any worse.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org