Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself Wednesday from a legal challenge filed last week against Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.
The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of a bill Gianforte signed into law granting the governor power to directly appoint state District Court judges and Supreme Court justices after a vacancy on the bench. The petition was filed March 17, less than 24 hours after Gianforte signed the bill, by former lawmakers and a 1972 constitutional convention delegate whose work 50 years ago led to the judicial nomination commission. The commission was eliminated when Gianforte signed Senate Bill 140 into law.
Kurt Krueger, a District Court judge from Silver Bow County, will serve in McGrath's place for the remainder of the case, per an order issued Wednesday.
Prior to being elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2008, McGrath served two terms as Montana's Attorney General as a Democrat. He was also the Lewis and Clark County attorney from 1982 to 2000.
Gianforte has not yet respond to the petition, which requests the high court take immediate jurisdiction over the case rather than routing it first through a state District Court. Another order issued Wednesday demands Gianforte, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, or both, to respond in the next 14 days.
The state Legislature, meanwhile, on Wednesday held hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nominations for two of the three District Court judges appointed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. If the Senate rejects those nominations for judges who have been serving in those roles, Gianforte would use the new law to fill those vacancies by direct appointment.