Montana Judicial Branch investigation
HELENA – On Thursday, Republican state lawmakers finalized a state Justice Department report more than a year after an investigation into claims of bias began. However, Democrats and the judicial branch pushed back strongly against the decision.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Members approved the report in a 4-2 party-line vote at the final meeting of the Montana Legislature’s Special Select Committee on Judicial Accountability and Transparency. The document accuses representatives of the judicial branch of mismanaging public records and expressing opinions on bills whose constitutionality may eventually be decided by the courts.
Sen said, Our overall goal here was to ensure a fair and impartial justice system in Montana. Greg Hartz, R-Paulson, who chaired the committee. sen said, sen thinks it’s important for everyone in Montana.
The report is just the latest step in a long-running dispute between GOP legislative leaders and state judges. It contains sharp criticism of judges — especially Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath — and recommends changing rules about when judges must recuse themselves from cases and how state government emails are stored.Montana Judicial Branch investigation. Contact Us
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Committee Republicans decided Thursday to make minor adjustments to the draft report, which was originally released last week. They removed specific language saying McGraw and an attorney for state court administrator Beth McLaughlin lied about the issues, but kept in statements that they “misrepresented” or “misled.” Both McGrath and the attorney’s law firm submitted letters to the committee, accusing them of defaming the report.Montana Judicial Branch investigation.
Hertz told MTN that he had decided to remove “judgmental comments” from the report, but he claimed the allegations were supported by evidence.
Democratic committee members said their input was not included in the report and offered their own “minority report,” in which they called the majority’s decision a “partisan attack on Montana’s independent judiciary.”
Sen said he thinks it was an unprecedented political move by the Montana Constitution and the Department of Justice to follow. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “They are the pillars of our country’s democracy.”
The issues predate the 2021 legislative session, when Republicans criticized the polls conducted by the Montana Judges Association, asking judges their views on proposed bills the Legislature is debating — including one that would give Gov. Greg Gianforte greater authority to appoint judges. GOP leaders argued that the practice raised concerns about due process and impartiality when lawsuits challenged those bills as unconstitutional.
Legislative leaders used their subpoena power to obtain thousands of internal court emails from McLaughlin, seeking information on judges’ deliberations about the bill. They said the request came after McLaughlin reported deleting some relevant emails.Montana Judicial Branch investigation.
In August 2021, the Montana Supreme Court quashed the subpoena and ordered the records returned, saying the request exceeded the Legislature’s authority. Appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, arguing that it was inappropriate to rule on the case because of state courts’ own policies and dealing with employees. The High Court declined to interfere.
The committee’s majority report said that accountability for judges is “opaque at best and inadequate at worst” and it laid out ten “potential options for the legislature to consider” in response. That included a bill to automatically disqualify judges from hearing cases if they express an opinion, updating policies on when state government emails must be retained, changes to the commission’s policy that handles judicial ethics complaints, and clarifying the Legislature. Subpoena power
McGrath said in his letter to the committee that the report “repeated outdated, inaccurate, and inappropriate allegations.”He defended the judicial act, saying there was a difference between a judge commenting on a matter of policy and prejudging the legal merits of a bill. He said the report’s recommendations often reflect existing rules for the ethical conduct of judges, and the Justice Department has already adopted new policies on email retention.
Missoula law firm Boone Carlberg, which represented McLaughlin, said in its letter that all of his attorney’s actions were proper and that the Legislature accessed the records without ensuring privacy. “sour grapes of the worst kind,” They said in the committee’s report.Montana Judicial Branch investigation.
Sands told MTN that he sees the majority report as a “blueprint” for changing the Montana constitution after judges have blocked several GOP-backed bills in the past two years as unconstitutional.