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GOP lawmakers look to enter judicial appointments case
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GOP lawmakers look to enter judicial appointments case

House Majority Leader, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings

House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, addresses the Republican House Caucus at the Montana state Capitol in this November 2020 file photo.

Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels summarizes the day's news from the Montana Legislative session.

Republican leadership in both the state House and Senate have prepared resolutions to enter a Supreme Court case challenging a bill recently passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor expanding his appointment power for judicial vacancies.

Resolutions introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith and House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, both Republicans from Billings, would compel the Legislative Services Division Legal Services Office to contract attorneys to fight back against the legal challenge against filed in March.

Smith and Vinton issued a joint statement to the Montana State News Bureau on Thursday on the upcoming resolutions.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings

Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings

Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings

"The Montana State Constitution vests in the Legislature the authority to enact legislation. When a piece of legislation that we drafted, debated and voted to pass is the subject of a court challenge, the Legislature is an indispensable party to that litigation. It is our duty as elected legislators to protect the integrity of the legislative branch and its ability to fulfill its constitutional role. As in past sessions, the Legislature must authorize the hiring of an outside counsel to intervene in pending litigation."

A fiscal note estimating the cost of the resolution, something commonly prepared for bills that will require spending state funds, was not available Thursday.

Former Republican and Democratic officials, along with Vernon Finley of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana League of Women Voters, petitioned the Montana Supreme Court in March challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 140. The bill's passage terminated the Judicial Nomination Commission, which previously rounded up a list of nominees to submit to the governor for appointments upon vacancies in the state District Court and Supreme Court.

During the legislative process, supporters of SB 140, including the Governor's Office, called the commission's impartiality a "fiction" and said its members were liberal-leaning. Opponents to SB 140, which included Democrats, attorneys and the judicial branch, said allowing the governor to handpick judges was a "power grab."

As the legislative and executive branches prepare to team up on the case, those officials have already attacked the judicial branch's impartiality based on an internal judges poll seeking responses of either support or opposition to SB 140. Earlier this week the Montana Department of Justice compared the Supreme Court to bank robbers for allowing Silver Bow County District Court Judge Kurt Krueger to be appointed as chief justice for the case after he had already issued an opinion in the poll opposing the bill; Krueger recused himself after his poll opinion was revealed in court documents by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen. 

House Speaker Wylie Galt and Senate President Mark Blasdel, meanwhile, last week issued a request to the Supreme Court to turn over the results of the judges poll on SB 140

Montana State News Bureau

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