The Montana Supreme Court Tuesday named former state Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns to lead the committee in charge of re-drawing the boundaries of Montana’s legislative districts.
Stearns was picked by the state high court after the two Democrats and two Republicans on the Montana 2020 Redistricting Commission deadlocked on who should be their fifth and final member.
Justice Beth Baker said it was important to add another female to the commission, which is currently made up of three men and one women. Baker said Stearns is qualified for the politically fraught position.
"From what know about her reputation, I do think she would be an effective leader for this commission who would bring a nonpartisan approach and a work ethic to bridge those differences and get things done."
The position carries the power to cast tie-breaking votes on shaping state legislative districts. And, depending on the outcome of the 2020 census, the commission will influence how Montana voters pick a second Representative to the U.S. House.
The state Supreme Court picked Stearns after voting down an idea to extend public comment on nominees for the position.
Jeff Essmann, a Republican on the redistricting commission, asked the court to slow down its decision-making and go through another round of input.
"And if they thought the court was nominating someone who was not impartial or of that mental bent, they could express that opinion to the court. But the people of Montana will not get that opportunity now," Essmann said.
Jamie MacNaughton, the attorney for the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP), also questioned the amount of public processes in the court’s decision making.*
MacNaughton did not tell the Supreme Court Tuesday that she was representing the opinion of the COPP, but only that she was an attorney in town who worked for the state.
"We should have a more public participation in who is our fifth commissioner," she said.
MacNaughton said the Legislature could have also been more transparent in how the initial four members of the redistricting commission were picked.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath said the court was following its usual process for approving officials to public positions.
"We have tried to make it a more open deliberation and a more open process," McGrath said. "You know, the Legislature appointed four members without any process whatsoever.”
Several court justices said opening up public comment on the final list of candidates could expose the nominees to greater political skepticism and influence.
The Montana Constitution requires the state Supreme Court to pick the final member of redistricting commissioners when the other four politically-appointed members can’t agree.
The other members of the commission besides Jeff Essmann are Republican Dan Stusek, and Democrats Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller.
Sheila Stearns was the first women to be Montana’s commissioner of higher education and holds an honorary doctorate from Montana State University. She has also served as interim president of the University of Montana, and president at Fort Wayne State College in Nebraska.
"My career as a leader in higher education has always involved looking at all sides, being respectful of many viewpoints, seeking them out and looking for common ground," Stearns says.
According to campaign finance records compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics, Stearns has donated to at least six Montana Democratic candidates over the last decade.
"It may not have shown up recently, but I certainly, over the years, have given occasionally, not often, small amounts to candidates from both parties," Stearns says.
Stearns says she has given to political campaigns while remaining nonpartisan, and that those donations will not impact her ability to remain nonpartisan as the leader of the redistricting commission.
The group will redraw the state’s political boundaries following the 2020 Census.
*EDITOR NOTE: Jamie MacNaughton was speaking at the Montana Supreme Court on her personal time and not on the behalf of the office of Commissioner of Political Practices. This clarification was requested by the Commissioner of Political Practices.