I don’t know First Judicial District Judge Chris Abbott. I never met him. Never worked as a lawyer at his court. He was appointed by Governor Bullock when Judge Reynolds retired to serve the remainder of Reynolds’ tenure through January 2023. It had to be ratified by the Montana Senate, but that is the problem. SR 46, to confirm Judge Abbott, was assigned to the Judicial Committee on February 1, but the committee did not plan to hear the decision. Why not? The Senate seems to have been waiting for SB 140 to be passed. SB 140 has abolished Montana’s Judicial Nomination Commission, the process by which Chris Abbott was appointed judge. SB 140 flew through the legislature, waiting for the governor’s signature at the time of this writing.
The Judicial Nomination Commission has existed for almost 50 years. His job was to conduct a public screening of applicants for medium-term vacancies and to make his recommendations to the governor. It consisted of four lay people, two lawyers and a judge. The law required laypeople to live in different geographic areas of the state and represent different industries, businesses and professions. The system allowed multiple votes at the nomination table, using a performance-based system for appointing judges. Montana has an independent, impartial judiciary. With the adoption of SB 140, no commission is examining the applicants. The decision on the appointment of judges rests solely with the governor. SB 140 is the embodiment of a system of patronage for preliminary judicial appointments. As noted in a recent opinion piece by bipartisan writers, one of whom served as governor, this gives the Montana chief executive officer more power over the judiciary “than a good governor wants or should have”.