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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Supreme Court: Legislative Subpoenas Overstepped Legislature’s Authority

William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday ruled that the state Legislature overstepped its authority when issuing subpoenas for court records.

The court wrote in its unanimous opinion that lawmakers did not give a valid legislative purpose for why they sought email records containing confidential information posing privacy concerns.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Dirk Sandefur wrote that the situation was an attempt to “undermine the only non-partisan branch in an effort to attain unitary, unfettered—in effect, authoritarian— power, unconstrained by constitutional limits.”

University of Montana constitutional law professor Anthony Johnstone says justices provided standard separation of powers arguments in their opinions.

“The principles the court invokes are the same principles the Legislature would invoke if the tables were turned and it were claiming that the judiciary had overstepped its powers,” Johnstone says.

Johnstone says it’s not the Legislature’s role to enforce laws, echoing a point also made by justices.

He says the case represents one of the highest-profile clashes between Montana state government branches in recent memory.

“Certainly under the 50 years of the Montana Constitution,” Johnstone says.

The court battle stemmed from GOP lawmakers filing subpoenas for internal communications among the state’s Supreme Court justices and court administrator.

The requests were part of an unprecedented investigation into allegations of bias among the judicial branch while it considered a legal challenge to a new law that expands the governor’s power to fill judicial vacancies between elections. Court officials rejected the allegations.

In a statement responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Republican Sen. Greg Hertz, who’s chairing the special investigatory committee, accused justices of engaging in a “massive conflict of interest.”

Hertz said the Legislature will continue to review the ruling and has more work to ensure the judicial branch is transparent and accountable.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America statehouse reporter.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.

Kevin is a UM Journalism graduate student and reporter for MTPR.
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