Billings native ‘on cloud nine’ after high court mention


Sally McIntosh

On a visit to the National Constitution Center, Peter Miller draped an arm around a statue of Elbridge Gerry, who, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812 signed a bill to redistrict the state in a way that benefited his party. One of the controlled districts in Boston resembled a salamander, resulting in the coinage “gerrymander.”

It seems everybody in the country has been talking about last week’s Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and Obamacare, but you can’t fault Peter Miller for focusing on a more obscure ruling that came down Monday.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that the voters of Arizona had the constitutional right to create an independent redistricting commission, taking the power of drawing congressional district maps away from the state Legislature.

On the eighth page of her 35-page majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited an article written by Miller, a 2002 graduate of Billings Senior High School who earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Irvine, in 2013.

Miller, 31, who had a ringside seat on the political circus that resulted in the Arizona case, said his heart skipped a beat when he learned Monday morning that his work had been cited by Ginsburg.

“I’m on cloud nine because there are a hundred other people smarter than me that could have been cited, but I got the draw,” he said Monday evening.

The article Ginsburg referenced was “Redistricting Commissions in the Western United States,” which Miller co-wrote with his dissertation adviser, Bernard Grofman. They presented their paper at a conference at UC Irvine, after which it was accepted for publication in the UC Irvine Law Review in 2013.

Here is Ginsburg’s reference to the conclusions presented in that paper: “Studies report that nonpartisan and bipartisan commissions generally draw their maps in a timely fashion and create districts both more competitive and more likely to survive legal challenges. See Miller & Grofman, Redistricting Commissions in the Western United States.”

In working on his dissertation about redistricting in the United States, Miller received a grant that he used to attend 23 public hearings on redistricting efforts, including two hearings in his home state. Montana is one of about a dozen states that have redistricting commissions at least somewhat independent of their legislatures.

He also went to Arizona for two hearings, the first of which was in Phoenix in 2011. As the hearing was getting underway, a woman seated next to him asked him how many hearings he’d attended in Arizona. When Miller told her this would be his first, she said, “Oh, you’re in for a show.”

Miller described the proceedings as a “raucous, almost out of control hearing,” with sheriff’s deputies on hand to keep order. Most of the people lined up to testify were more intent on urging the commission to cooperate with an investigation into charges that it had violated open-meetings law than with the redistricting process.

“There wasn’t really much discussion about the maps,” Miller said. “It was just about this sideshow.”

Arizona’s redistricting commission had five members, two appointed by Republican legislative leaders and two by Democrats, with a fifth member, the chair, then chosen by those four.

It so happened that the four picked a chair who mostly sided with the Democrats, even though the governorship and both houses of the Legislature were in Republican hands, sparking a political donnybrook. The Legislature ultimately sued, saying the voters who created an independent commission had no authority to deprive legislators of the power to create legislative districts.

By the time the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Miller was in Philadelphia, where he is the John Templeton Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said he told himself, “This is probably the only decision I will ever know anything about.”

He made plans to hear the oral arguments before the high court, and before then he studied up on the case, which included reading 19 friend-of-court briefs filed by people on both sides of the issue. One of the briefs was written by three political scientists who mentioned the paper Miller and his adviser worked on, which was thrilling enough.

In March, when the court heard oral arguments in the case, Miller stood in line at 7 a.m. for the 10 o’clock hearing in Washington, D.C. Even then, he barely got in. “I got the last seat in the room,” he said.

He left the hour-long hearing assuming that the majority would side with the Arizona Legislature, which made a compelling case that the Constitution plainly gave the power to regulate elections for senators and representatives to the legislature of each state.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling about 10 a.m. Monday. Miller wrote to a friend and colleague to say he was pleased with the decision. That friend, who had co-authored one of the friend-of-the-court briefs, said that while the brief itself had been cited, he hadn’t been mentioned by name.

So, just for the heck of it, Miller went to the Supreme Court website, called up Ginsburg’s majority opinion and typed his own name into the search box.

“Surprisingly, it found one,” he said. “And I said, ‘oh, my.’”

Generally speaking, Miller said, academics and social scientists “toil in obscurity,” doing tons of research and telling friends and family that it actually matters. In truth, he said, you realize that maybe five people will end up seeing the fruits of your work.

“And then you find that the five people who read it were on the Supreme Court,” he said. “I just got a ticket to the moon.”

Miller discovered the citation about 10:15 a.m. and posted a mention of it on Facebook. For the rest of the day, his phone and his computer were dinging every few minutes as congratulations and praise flowed in from friends, family and colleagues all over the country.

From his mother, Sally McIntosh of Billings, he received a short email that said only, “OH MY GOD.”

As for the merits of the case, Miller said he believes that allowing legislatures to draw congressional districts is problematic, and creating independent redistricting committees is one way of attempting to “resolve an obvious conflict of interest.”

Miller said he is one who believes that the Constitution is “a growing, evolving document.” On that March day when he listened to the arguments in the Arizona case, he said, he left the Supreme Court building and starting walking aimlessly. He eventually found himself at the Jefferson Memorial. There, he was struck by one of Thomas Jefferson’s statements, engraved on a panel of the monument.

“Laws and institutions,” it read, “must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed … institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

“This, for whatever reason, rang true in my mind,” Miller said.

It also helps explain why he thinks Monday’s Supreme Court decision, bolstered in some small measure by his research, “is a win for the vitality of American democracy.”

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