Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court

Republican officials in Montana, who declared open season on their own judicial system earlier this year, fired a new salvo at the courts late last week. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested that the entire state supreme court recuse itself in a case involving a legislative subpoena of internal court documents.

In March, Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission, and allow the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly. Several weeks ago, the Republican legislature issued a subpoena to the state court administrator, seeking internal emails and other court documents (Including an internal poll) in which state trial judges allegedly expressed opinions on the constitutionality of that legislation. The court administrator asked the state supreme court to quash the subpoena, and Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself from that determination because he had lobbied the governor not to sign the bill. The remaining six members of the state supreme court quashed those subpoena in mid-April, pending a further hearing.

The AG now asserts that all members of the supreme court are directly conflicted from participating in any future hearing on the issue, because they would be ruling on access to their own internal documents. The justices’ continued participation in the case constitutes, in the AG’s words, “not merely the appearance of impropriety. This is actual impropriety.”

At first glance, state Republicans have laid a trap for the judiciary worthy of a cartoon villain. If the remaining justices recuse in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Republicans will challenge any replacement judges on same grounds until they find judges that they feel will rule in their favor. On the other hand, if the justices decline to recuse themselves, they will face continued allegations of bias and impropriety, and will come under heavy political pressure to allow the subpoena to go forward.

Never mind that the allegations of impropriety appear to have absolutely no merit. None of the six justices on the court have spoken in any official public capacity about the subpoenas or the pending legislation. But that is beside the point: the real purpose of the recusal motion is to turn public opinion against the courts by painting the judiciary as hopelessly biased.

There is a way out of this trap, but it will require several careful steps.

Continue reading “Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court”

State courts come under legislative assault

State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.

The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:

In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.

In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”

Ninth Circuit upholds Montana’s nonpartisan judicial election scheme

In another example of judges ruling on the status of other judges, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the propriety of Montana’s nonpartisan judicial elections. The nonpartisan scheme was challenged by a judicial candidate who argued that his inability to seek, accept, or use political endorsements in his campaign violated his First Amendment rights. Citing recent Supreme Court precedent, the panel upheld the state’s restrictions on political endorsements.

The full opinion is here.

Former federal judge to run for U.S. Senate

Russell Fagg, who recently retired from a life-appointed position as a United States District Judge in Montana, announced yesterday that he will seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from that state. The winner will oppose incumbent Jon Tester in 2018.

Judge Fagg is hardly the first jurist to seek a position in another branch of government — former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore recently won the Republican Senate nomination in that state, and another former Alabama Chief Justice, Sue Bell Cobb, is running for governor. In the other direction, many Supreme Court Justices (among them John Jay, William Howard Taft, Hugo Black, and Sandra Day O’Connor) came to the bench after extensive careers in the executive and/or legislative branches.

Judge Fagg is touting his judicial experience — more than 25,000 cases during a 22-year career. And there is something to be said for having a jurist’s mindset in the legislature — one that is capable of coolly and dispassionately evaluating complicated matters. Of course, having that mindset does not mean that one will use it, and the Senate has not exactly been a paragon of reasoned deliberation in recent years. But it will be interesting to see whether — and how — Montana voters account for Judge Fagg’s third branch experience as the race heats up.