Described as a “rally to defend Montana’s Constitution,” several of those who have been vocal in their support of the document spoke about its value as the Legislature this week worked through hearings for some legislation that would, if passed, ask voters to make changes to the document in the fall of 2024.
“As many of us know, when you over-till the land, you sully the earth and destroy that which you seek to create,” Keegan Medrano, of the ACLU of Montana, said Wednesday. “What is happening right now in Montana is that effort to over-till. What is happening right now is a flagrant disregard for the existing provisions of the Constitution and a craven effort to impose their most unpopular ideas into our document.”
The event was promoted by the Montana Environmental Information Center and featured a list more than a dozen organizations that were co-hosts. Speakers touched on topics from the formation of the Constitution to concerns they had about efforts to put referendums before voters in the fall of 2024 to make changes to the document.
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Mae Nan Ellingson, a delegate when the Constitution was re-written in 1972, said the intent at the time was to write a document that let government serve the people and protect citizens from that government.
“We made a Constitution that belonged to the people,” Ellingson said. “We did not create a Democratic Party Constitution (or) a Republican Party Constitution … it’s a ‘We the People’ Constitution with the power derived from the people, the power retained by the people. … It is far, far, far from being a socialist rag.”
The end of her comment referred to a statement made by former state Rep. Derek Skees, a Kalispell Republican, in 2021.
Ellingson then pointed to laws passed in the 2021 legislative session that have since been found unconstitutional by courts, saying she thought some attempts to change the Constitution now stem from that.
“It seems to me the Legislature, duly elected as they are, think they are the supreme branch of government,” Ellingson said. “ … they simply do what they want to do, and that is why we have Constitutions.”
Still, she acknowledged lawmakers have a right to bring the referendums but said then it’s up to voters in the end.
“Any amendment, any prop amendment that makes it through this Legislature, will be on the general ballot in 2024,” Ellingson said to the crowd in the Capitol rotunda. “ … You the people are the only, only, only ones that can change (the Constitution). Don’t despair if an amendment or two gets through.”
In a press conference Monday, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, of Great Falls, was critical of the concerns raised about proposed referendums. There were more than 50 requested this session, though Republicans in the supermajority have narrowed their list of priorities to a dozen.
“I find it a little unusual that you hear so much about the threats to democracy and all of a sudden you have the chance of the people to engage in democracy and have a voice in what their Constitution and what their government looks like, and all of a sudden you have all these people like (former Republican) Gov. (Marc) Racicot and others that say it’s bad for the people to decide what their government looks like," Fitzpatrick said. "These constitutional amendments, they pass the Legislature but ultimately it’s the people of Montana that get to decide what their government looks like. So this is direct democracy in its best form and I really think that there needs to be a better appreciation for our democratic process and how constitutional amendments are proposed and become law.”
Some of the priorities include having Supreme Court justices be appointed and revising their terms, the right to hunt, constitutional carry, requiring legislative approval of redistricting, prohibiting public funding of some abortions and a personhood amendment.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson spoke Wednesday against some of the referendums, saying he wanted to keep courts "impartial and nonpartisan."
“Our courts, our judges, our justices and our Constitution are the only thing standing between we the people and the tyranny of the majority,” Nelson said.
Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice, raised concerns over bills this session that would change election laws.
"Will we allow these efforts to go uncontested? Will we stand idly by while our cost is undermined?" Perez asked.
State Rep. SJ Howell, a Missoula Democrat, focused on the right to privacy within the state Constitution. That right is where a 1999 state Supreme Court order found Montana's Constitution protects the right to access a pre-viability abortion, making the provision a target of some GOP legislators.
“Our choices about our bodies, about what care we receive, about how and when to start families, I can't think of much that’s more personal and deserving of privacy than that," Howell said.
Earlier in the week, Senate President Jason Ellsworth, of Hamilton, again emphasized it was not just Republicans making decisions about the Constitution.
“Everything that we do as a ... referendum, we give that to the citizens, so the citizens vote on this. The citizens at the end of the day make this decision. The only decision we make is what gets in front of them," Ellsworth said in a press conference.
Before closing, 14-year-old Mica Kantor, an eighth grader from Missoula who is part of a lawsuit filed by several young people in Montana claiming the state government has not protected their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, spoke.
Kantor said he was concerned about losing access to his favorite outdoor activities and species endangered by climate change.
"I'm not old enough to vote, so sometimes it's hard for me to feel like my voice is being heard," Kantor said of why he joined the lawsuit.
Holly Michels is the head of the Montana State News Bureau. You can reach her at email@example.com