Republican leadership in the House and Senate on Wednesday announced the formation of a committee to investigate claims of misconduct in the judicial branch, a move Democrats decried as an attempt to undermine the third branch of government.
The select committee announced seeks to "continue investigating the conduct and practices of the Montana Judiciary," a GOP spokesperson said in an email Wednesday.
The announcement follows nearly a week of escalating tension between the legislative and the judicial branches. Republican officials in recent weeks have raised concerns about an internal poll process in which judges have issued oppose-or-reject responses to pending legislature pertaining to the judiciary. The GOP has also questioned the court administrator deleting those emailed poll results from her account. Montana Supreme Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin has petitioned the high court to quash the subpoena for her emails, arguing it's too broad of a request.
Democrats responded with sharp criticism after the administrative department in the executive branch hustled nearly 2,500 of documents over the weekend from the court's email server to Republican lawmakers in response to their subpoena for the material. The court later quashed the subpoena, but GOP lawmakers have said they will defy the court's order.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, of Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, from East Helena, condemned the majority party's decision to form a commission further investigating the court administrator's email use.
“Today’s action is just the latest attempt to undermine the judiciary and our Constitution as Republicans look to take control of an independent branch of government," reads the statement from Democratic leadership. "By forming this inquisition, Legislative Republicans are deepening the constitutional crisis that they’ve already manufactured in their effort to destroy the last remaining checks and balances on their power."
Republicans have selected Sen. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson and former House Speaker, and Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, as well as freshman Rep. Amy Reiger, R-Kalispell and House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican from Billings. Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, and Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, will also sit on the commission.
The state Republican Party also weighed in on the matter Wednesday, identifying one of its party platforms as limiting "the ability of the Montana Supreme Court to abuse its power to protect themselves" in an emailed statement.
"The Montana Republican Party believes a judiciary must be impartial and uphold the rule of law, and that our judges be loyal to the Constitution above all else," GOP Chair Don Kaltschmidt wrote. "The Montana Supreme Court appears to be working to protect the questionable decisions that members of the judiciary took in prejudging legislative actions, and Montanans deserve a thorough investigation from the legislature to ensure there is accountability."
The committee is planning to meet for organizational purposes on Friday, a Senate GOP spokesperson said, with a meeting on the committee's business early next week.
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