By Tim Ravndal
“The goal with the legislation is effective judicial oversight, not a power struggle, supposedly over separation of government powers” says Bart Crabtree, president of the Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability (MtSCOJA).
The non-government, nonprofit organization (NGO) inspired HB685 which failed by House vote after being passed by the House Judiciary Committee. That defeated legislation would have made way for an amendment of the Montana Constitution to rename and restructure the state’s Judicial Standards Commission to the Judicial Inquiry Commission comprised of one retired district judge, one attorney, and seven citizens who are
neither judges nor attorneys.
The bill was sponsored by Representative Brad Tschida (R-HD97) and may have been a casualty of the recent turf war between Montana’s Republican-led
legislature and heavily Democrat-influenced judiciary.
SB140 was passed and signed by the Governor of Montana. That legislation launched a court battle over certain coveted power to control the fate of some Montana state judges and justices. SB140 bill became law and accordingly eliminated Montana’s Judicial Nomination Commission, giving Governor Greg Gianforte unfettered power to fill state judicial vacancies.
Having to defend against a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that arrangement prompted state Attorney General Austin Knudsen to subpoena results of a poll suggesting the Montana Supreme Court justices presiding over the case were biased against the legislation at issue.
Apparently before its enactment, all the justices were asked their views on SB140 which they shared via emails that the Court’s
administrator, Beth McLaughlin, reportedly deleted after receiving Knudsen’s referenced subpoena. McLaughlin’s arguable obstruction of justice is proving no more scandalous than related emails retrieved.
It is claimed that the emails allegedly including some of Montana’s Chief Justice Mike McGrath that proposed lobbying against HB685, stating “. . . the problem here is it allows a citizen’s commission to discipline or remove judges” and describing the bill’s proposed Judicial Inquiry Commission as ‘Where Democracies Go To Die’.
While Republican and Democrat state legislators chide each other’s response to Montana’s SB140 Scandal, MtSCOJA endeavors to rise above the fray.
According to Tracy Parrish, the NGO’s Public Relations Director~
“We take basic cues from the National Forum On Judicial Accountability (NFOJA), a legislative initiative to maximize constitutionally sound, direct citizen judicial oversight, primarily by eliminating state judicial self-policing”, Parrish explained. The “About” page of NFOJA’s online social network claims, “an imbalance of power results between judges and other Americans when judges directly or substantially control all the government processes for challenging their official conduct” and distinguishes “that imbalance of power from considerations of judicial corruption and related abuses of power.”
MtSCOJA’s website shares similar sentiments. President Bart Crabtree emphasized; “There are given indications that Montana Supreme Court justices consider lay citizens incapable of competently resolving judicial misconduct disputes.”
Mr. Crabtree goes on to state: “State court judges are known to contend that only they are qualified to regulate and discipline themselves. Citizens of Montana who are not nor ever have been lawyers already resolve legal issues often much more complicated than whether a judge has been ethical through our service as jurors and grand jurors.”
Looking back to the SB140 Scandal and the arguable lobbying against HB685 it shows and may even further reveal the need for action including plans to seek reconsideration of HB685 by the House. “This bill is a good first step towards a fair and impartial administration of justice in the State of Montana“. Mr. Crabtree added that; “If we have to wait until 2023 to make a first step, it should be bigger – closer to the strategy for random selection of only lay citizens as NFOJA proposes. NFOJA’s model legislation would not only allow for much more potent, direct citizen oversight than HB685 contemplates, but would also better insulate our state’s judicial disciplinary process from politics.”
Reaching accord is not going to get easier than now, nor will it ever be less important than maintaining a proper balance between judicial independence and judicial accountability in Montana” according to Mr. Crabtree.
For more information contact Tracy Parrish, Public Relations Director for Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability here or call 801-870-1014. President of Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability Bart Crabtree can be contacted here for further information .
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