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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A panel of three federal judges ruled Thursday that Montana's secretary of state cannot certify candidates for the two seats on the state's utility regulating board that are up for election this year until a lawsuit over balancing the number of residents in each district is decided.

The districts for Montana's five seats on the Public Service Commission have not been reapportioned in nearly two decades, the lawsuit states, despite bills trying to get the Legislature to do so.

Data from the 2020 Census show some districts have significantly more residents and some have many fewer, violating a constitutional requirement for political districts to be balanced under the “one person-one vote rule," the plaintiffs argue.

The voters challenging the districts are asking the judges to create new districts prior to the 2022 elections.

The judges rejected an argument from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who said the Legislature should be given a chance to reapportion the districts next year, when they hold their first session after the 2020 Census data was made available.

While saying her argument has some merit, the judges wrote: “But, at the same time, the limited record shows that the Montana Legislature has consistently failed to remedy malapportioned districts," and that there's no constitutional requirement for them to do so.

If each of the state’s five PSC districts contained 216,845 people, they would balance. Only one of Montana’s five PSC districts, District 2, anchored by Billings, comes close to the target population. Two of the districts up for election in 2022 happen to be extremely out of balance.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris and Judge Paul Watford with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction blocking Jacobsen from certifying candidates for the PSC races and set an expedited briefing schedule so they can have the issue resolved before the March 14 candidate filing deadline.

The filing period for the June primary began on Thursday.

Filings made by Republican PSC member Randy Pinocci of Sun River and Republican Derek Skees of Kalispell for the two PSC seats are listed as pending on the secretary of state's website.

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