A bipartisan group is petitioning the Montana Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a bill allowing the governor to directly appoint district court judges and state Supreme Court justices during vacancies.
The filing came within 24 hours of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signing Senate Bill 140 into law.
Previously, the executive had to fill judicial vacancies from a list of three to five nominees presented by a governor-appointed commission.
Petitioners say the new system violates the intent of state constitution framers and threatens an "otherwise-nonpartisan, independent, and effective means of filling judicial vacancies."
1972 Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Ellingson is among the petitioners, along with former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown, former Democratic state lawmaker Dorothy Bradley, former Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley and the Montana League of Women Voters.
Under SB 140, an appointed judge needs to run in the next election to serve the full remainder of their predecessor’s term. The new law also requires a 30 day public comment period.
In a press release Gianforte said he will appoint “well-qualified judges who will protect and uphold the Constitution and who will interpret laws, not make them from the bench."
Gianforte says Senate confirmation of appointments will be an important check on the executive power. Senate confirmation is not required in some situations depending on the timing of the next election and legislative session.
Montana’s current seven-member Supreme Court consists of four justices elected in nonpartisan races, two appointed by a Democratic governor and one appointed by a Republican governor who was later elected to the position.
Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.