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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Gianforte Could Appear In Court Wednesday, May 31

Greg Gianforte and his wife, Susan, celebrate victory in the U.S. House race May 25, 2017 in Bozeman, MT.
Corin Cates-Carney
Greg Gianforte and his wife, Susan, celebrate victory in the U.S. House race May 25, 2017 in Bozeman, MT.

U.S. congressman-elect Greg Gianforte could appear in court as early as Wednesday to face the misdemeanor assault charge police gave him last Wednesday. Gianforte missed his first opportunity to appear in court last Friday.

Gianforte is required to appear in Gallatin County court by June 7 at the latest. That court only meets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Last Wednesday, on the eve of election day, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper told police Gianforte, "body slammed" him at a campaign event.

Gianforte faces a maximum penalty of $500 and six months in jail. But Jordan Gross, a professor at the University of Montana law school, says generally, those maximum penalties are not applied.

"It would be relatively unusual to get any kind of significant jail time, or maybe even any jail time, for a simple assault, what we call a misdemeanor assault.”

Gross says misdemeanor assault is generally a straightforward charge, with simple legal proceedings, but complicating this case is the high-profile nature of the defendant – a congressman elect.

If Gianforte pleads guilty, a judge could sentence him the same day.

If that happens, Professor Gross says a judge can consider the trust involved in being an elected official in the sentencing decision, as well as the public apology Gianforte made during his victory speech. The judge may also consider the Gianforte campaign’s initial statement on the incident, blaming the reporter for the physical altercation. That statement contradicts eyewitness accounts by a Fox News TV crew, published by Fox News.

A not-guilty plea would extend the judicial process at least 6-8 weeks, while another hearing is scheduled, which could result in a jury trial, according to a Gallatin County court official.

Longtime Montana political reporter Chuck Johnson says it’s unlikely that legal proceedings would prevent Gianforte from serving in the U.S. House.

“Well, the ultimate judge of that is the House of Representatives which of course is controlled by Republicans," Johnson says, "so there's no doubt in my mind that they'll allow him to serve. But I'm sure this incident will be part of his reputation in Washington, and he's got a lot to do to overcome that.”

If Gianforte does not appear in county justice court Wednesday, he will have three more opportunities to do so over the next week.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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