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Tensions between Montana’s judiciary and legislature continue in special committee final report

Republican lawmakers have adopted an official report accusing the Montana judicial branch of misconduct. The state’s chief supreme court justice has demanded a retraction of the report and called it “libelous.”

After releasing a draft of their report earlier this month, Republicans removed two claims in their final document that previously alleged the chief Supreme Court justice and court administrator’s attorney lied during a special select committee’s inquiry.

Special Select Committee On Judicial Accountability and Transparency Chair Sen. Greg Hertz, a Republican, declined to make further amendments requested by Democrats to remove accusations that court staff and others gave misleading and untruthful statements.

“I think those comments are still appropriate in regards to information that’s in the report,” Hertz said.

The two amendments to walk back portions of the report came after Chief Justice Mike McGrath and attorney Randy Cox, who represented the court administrator, issued sharp rebukes to a draft of the report.

Tensions first arose in 2021 when leaked emails showed the judicial branch was privately surveying judges on proposed legislation that would affect the court system. Lawmakers launched an investigation and have since accused the branch of misconduct for commenting on legislation that would likely be challenged in court, using state resources to do so and for the deletion of those emails by Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin, which lawmakers say are public records.

Chief Justice McGrath says the report is libelous and asked in a letter to the committee that it be retracted. McGrath maintained that it’s appropriate for justices and judges to assess legislation that will impact the judiciary.

Cox also asked that the report be withdrawn. After Hertz said no, Cox responded that his request was a prerequisite to sue for punitive damages in a defamation claim.

Democratic Sen. Diane Sands, who serves on the committee and will retire in January, spoke in opposition to the report. She called it an attack on the separation of powers.

“It deeply, deeply concerns me that the last vote I get to take is about the preservation and defense of the Montana Constitution,” Sands said.

Democrats produced their own findings contradicting much of what the Republicans wrote, saying GOP lawmakers “manufactured a false conflict.” Democrats claim the investigation is a distraction from laws passed by Republicans that have been found unconstitutional in the courts.

Republicans in the committee voted down a motion to include the Democrats’ response as an official addendum to the final report.

The committee report backed by Republicans includes suggestions to regulate the judiciary, and many of those have already been requested as draft legislation for the 2023 session.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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