New Montana Law Allowing Judicial Appointments Challenged

A non-partisan group is petitioning the Montana Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a bill that would allow the governor to appoint district court judges and Supreme Court judges directly to vacancies.

Filing came within 24 hours after Republican Governor Greg Gianforte signed Senate Bill 140.

Previously, the executive had to fill vacancies from a list of three to five candidates presented by a commission appointed by the governor.

Petitioners say the new system is contrary to the intentions of state constitution drafters and threatens an “otherwise impartial, independent and effective means of filling judicial posts”.

1972 Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Ellingson is among the petitioners, along with former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown, former Democratic lawmaker Dorothy Bradley, former chairman of the Salish and Kootenai Tribe, Vernon Finley, and the Montana League of Women Voters.

Under SB 140, an appointed judge must stand for the next election to serve the full remainder of his predecessor’s term of office. The new law also stipulates a public comment period of 30 days.

In a press release, Gianforte said he would “appoint well-qualified judges to protect and uphold the constitution and interpret laws, not from the bank.”

Gianforte says the Senate’s confirmation of the appointments will be an important scrutiny of the executive power. In some situations, confirmation from the Senate is not required, depending on the time of the next election and the next legislative term.

The current seven-member Montana Supreme Court consists of four judges elected in non-partisan races, two by a Democratic governor and one by a Republican governor who was later elected to the position.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio’s report for America Statehouse Reporter.

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