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House endorses districts for Supreme Court seats
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House endorses districts for Supreme Court seats

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The Montana House on Thursday gave the initial OK to a bill that would assign state Supreme Court justices to districts, shifting away from their statewide representation.

Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican who represents rural Yellowstone and Musselshell counties, proposes with House Bill 325 that the change would mean voters are better represented on the high court. People from Red Lodge would likely choose a different judge than a Havre voter, he said.

"They're not going to vote for the same core values," Usher said.

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings,

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, speaks during a meeting of the Joint Rules Committee on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, on the House floor of the Montana State Capitol.

The Legislature would review the districts after each census to maintain equal population. After every election, the seven justices would vote to select their chief justice. 

Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, said the bill would likely be overturned by the state Supreme Court after a lengthy legal battle, and added the high court found in 2012 a similar bill was unconstitutional.

"What are the odds the Montana Supreme Court will reverse itself after nine years?" he asked. "Would you bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on those odds?"

Usher said the bill the Supreme Court found unconstitutional had required the justices to live in their assigned districts, but his bill does not.

The bill passed on second reading by a 63-37 vote, with four Republicans voting against the proposal. 

Forty-seven lawmakers have co-signed the bill, which will likely receive a third reading on Friday.

Montana State News Bureau
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