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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers look to tighten their control over the judiciary

Lawmakers are considering new regulations for the state’s judicial branch. Tensions have been rising between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary since last legislative session when legislators launched an investigation into the branch.

The Montana Senate advanced a bill mostly along party lines Tuesday, which would require judges to consider additional criteria before issuing preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R) - Great Falls
Montana Legislature
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R) - Great Falls

Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls says the bill will require a case to meet four criteria, instead of one, before a judge can issue a block.

“So, this is a more substantive evaluation of the case,” Fitzpatrick says.

The bill would also bar judges from issuing temporary restraining orders against state entities without prior notice, except in emergency circumstances.

When the bill was presented in committee, Brent Mead, with the Attorney General’s office, said the agency requested the bill after a district court judge blocked signature gathering for a ballot initiative last summer after the state was sued for allowing it. The state was not notified in advance.

Democratic Sen. Jen Gross of Billings spoke in opposition, saying it could lead to unintended consequences. She also noted state judges have recently blocked some Republican legislation.

“This bill looks a lot to me like a reaction to the number of unconstitutional laws that were passed by this body last session,” Gross says.

Lawmakers heard another bill in committee Tuesday that would change the appointment process for the state’s five-member Judicial Standards Commission, which accepts and considers complaints against judicial officers.

Republican Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe is carrying House Bill 326 to give appointing power of two of the commission members to the state Legislature’s Speaker of the House, and one member to the Attorney General’s office.

As it stands now, two members are district court judges elected by their peers and another member is appointed by the Montana Supreme Court. The bill would not amend the power of the governor to appoint two members to the commission.

Seekins-Crowe says she introduced the bill because the commission has dismissed most of the complaints filed over the last two years.

“I’m hearing from a lot of my constituents that they are very concerned at this point that it is the fox guarding the hen house,” Seekins-Crowe says.

No proponents testified.

Sean Slanger with the State Bar of Montana spoke in opposition, saying it removes all input from the judicial branch in creating oversight of its own members.

“Under HB 326, complaints against nonpartisan judges would be resolved by partisan appointees, thereby jeopardizing the independence of the court," Slanger says.

Republican lawmakers have previously made allegations of bias and misconduct against members of the state Supreme Court and other judges. The judiciary has vehemently denied those accusations.

The committee has not yet taken action on the bill.

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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