First Judicial District Court Under Fire
By Tim Ravndal
Judge Jim Reynolds sat on the bench in the First Judicial Court of Montana for multiple years. When first elected Mr. Reynolds was questioned in his promise to uphold the Constitution first. In Broadwater County, Judge Reynolds heard multiple cases that were making headlines dealing with the accountability of local government. Broadwater County Commissioners were legally challenged for violating the public trust. Arbitrarily ignoring the law, officials in Broadwater County were brought before Judge Reynolds. Multiple complaints were filed including a case where felony fraud charges in federal court against a Broadwater County official resulted in a conviction. This case brought further attention to the accountability and public trust of all elected officials of Broadwater County.
Judge Reynolds gave deference multiple times to elected officials but because of the persistence of a coalition of concerned citizens, Judge Reynolds actually reversed one of his decisions that provided an escape by elected officials. The cases were even brought clear up to the office of past Attorney General Tim Fox, where nothing was done to bring accountability to the people of Broadwater County. The entire judicial branch failed to hand down any penalties provided by law. As a result, those elected officials continued to engage in deceptive practices that are well documented for the next 10 plus years.
While Judge Reynolds was in control, an upcoming attorney Christopher Abbott was learning the ropes and was working to climb the ladder to higher positions within the system. Seeing the power delegated to judges, Mr. Abbott earlier applied to fill a vacancy in 2015, when Judge Jeffrey Sherlock retired. Mr. Abbott failed to make the cut, but continued to watch and got prepared to make a grab at the next available opportunity.
That opportunity opened up again when Judge Reynolds unexpectedly relinquished his control over the court. Mr. Reynolds, seeing the writing on the walls, decided his term of control had run its course. In 2020 Attorney Christopher Abbott was appointed by Governor Bullock to replace Judge Reynolds as District Court Judge in the First Judicial District.
Mr. Abbott acknowledges the influence judges have on the community and the importance of power not being delegated to the wrong people in those jobs. Having learned the system from the inside has given Mr. Abbott additional tenure and standing within the system.
Coining the phrase “I care about the community” Mr. Abbott brings forward the talking points that are used in the political arena without disclosing political party affiliation. Because judges are to be impartial, it is clear the truth in the matter is more often than not obscured by feel good political talking points.
Mr. Abbott took over a drug treatment program from Judge Reynolds. This duty, originally aimed at helping drug offenders get treatment and rehabilitation, has been in the spot light for the past several years here in Montana. We just did a story where district court judges and Child Protective Services officials are working hand in hand and in many cases violate the rights of the people. Power over making decisions regarding citizens that are seeking help can be very challenging even for judges that employ integrity as an elected official.
Judge Christopher Abbott
Judge Abbott for the past couple years has been shuffling cases within the district court. This practice that he fully endorses was put in place by his predecessors Judge Sherlock and Judge Reynolds. Many times we have seen cases tabled for indefinite periods of time due to community social or political pressure. This practice reached clear to the highest court in the land and has been tolerated by the people for many years. Complacency and faith of elected and appointed officials to upholding their oath of office and protect the public trust is strained.
“OATH OF OFFICE THE STATE OF MONTANA):COUNTY OF ___________ )I,_______________________________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, protect and defend the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of Montana, and that I will discharge the duties of my office ___________________________________ with fidelity (so help me God). In addition, in accordance with Mont. Code Ann. § 2-16-114, I certify that my signature below is my true and correct manual signature, and is in the exact form in which it will appear in facsimile upon any document which I may be required or permitted by law to sign._____________________________Signature_____________________________(Print Name)CERTIFICATION OF OFFICER ADMINISTERING OATH Sworn to and subscribed before me This _ day of ________, 20__________________________________________Officer Administering Oath Title: ________________”
Oath Of Office Being Called Into Question
One particular case that we reported on in the First Judicial District is where Montana law continues to be ignored by Judge Abbott.
(Cause #DDV-2020-33) is still pending and has been sitting on Judge Abbott’s desk for the past 11 months.
That case is a direct violation of the rights of the people. Guaranteed under the Constitution of Montana Article II Section 9 is called into question. The right to know and disclosure of public information is being ignored by Judge Abbott.
The oath of office that is sworn to upon election or appointment to represent the people of Montana has even come to be scrutinized in political campaigns at all levels. Accountability is called into question. If the oath that is sworn to is not being upheld, we are being asked why not and what can we the people do. The Montana Legislature often avoids this controversial question of law due to the very importance of political positions that are up for bid.
Judge Abbott was confirmed by the Montana Senate in April of this year. The confirmation was met with opposition by many legislators that have taken the time to observe the political and personal associations that are entrenched in the judicial system of Montana.
Debates continued in the legislature over confirmation of Judge Abbott right up to the last hour. Knowing that this judge was appointed by past Governor Bullock, conservative members of the legislature worked hard to unseat Judge Abbott.
Political posturing in the Montana Senate continued where a vote not to confirm Judge Abbott was squashed on a tie vote. Those supporting the system for the system moved to bring a resolution to the floor to confirm Judge Abbott and that effort squeaked by. Most all liberal democratic members of the legislature rallied behind Judge Abbott including but not limited to Democratic Senator Bryce Bennett from Missoula who is regularly working to climb the socialist political ladder.
Conservative legislators stood up and pointed out that Judge Abbott consistently shows poor judgment and independence as a judge most recently by maintaining direct contact with the Montana Supreme Court. Battle over emails that have been illegally redacted from public disclosure as guaranteed under the Constitution of Montana again calls into question the oath of office sworn to by Judges in Montana.
The Montana Senate also confirmed District Court Judge Peter Ohman of Bozeman. Mr. Ohman, also appointed by Bullock, was at the center of a heated debate regarding the Montana Crime Control Board where leadership was arbitrarily shook up to cover accountability within the Bullock administration. Montana County Attorneys Association representatives brought calls for accountability in the 2019 legislature but the power under Bullock squelched all efforts to expose corruption that was alleged to be happening within the department.
The current makeup of the First Judicial District Court is not exclusive in Montana, where citizens and lawyers alike question the standards and ethics of the court system in place. Judge Menahan and Judge McMahon holding senior positions on the court preside over the rules of the First Judicial District under their discretion. The rules that are in place since 2019 to employ a guideline for providing judicial expediency. Many we spoke to are calling for a need to look at the rules and amend as needed. Continuing to allow cases to languish on the desk of the Montana court system must be addressed according to several Montana Legislators that we spoke to.
A recent complaint was filed with the Judicial Accountability Commission against Judge Mike Menahan, based on the process he presided over in a felony case against an elected official. He summarily dismissed the complaint filed by Cheryl Campbell. Those following that case, questioned how the Montana Judicial Commission which is conveniently chaired by Judge Menahan could render any decisions based on impartiality on behalf of the citizens.
This past legislative session HB685 was shot down by the lawyers and the judges fighting transparency and accountability. The Montana State Council And Forum On Judicial Accountability led that effort but were out gunned by trial lawyers including a full court press by Judge Menahan. Several lawyers would openly agree there are problems, but many have told us that they must remain silent on the matter due to potential retaliation by the judicial system that is in place governed by the judges. Do the people of Montana get due process and accountability when it is the fox guarding the hen house?
The Montana Legislature has set interim committees where this issue is expected to be taken up. A special judiciary committee also is looking into the judicial standards due to the current transparency issue that is pending before the Montana Supreme Court over emails. A complete audit of the Judicial Accountability Commission is being considered, since that department has never been audited in the past according to any records we could find.
The terms of Judge Abbott and Judge Ohman will be up in 2023 so it will be handed to the citizens of Montana that live in the First Judicial District to decide if they wish to continue the tenure of these judges or give them a pink slip and move conservative judges into those positions to fairly represent the citizens.
Editor’s Note: It is evident that this story continues to morph here in Montana and many counties are experiencing similar actions that are needing attention across Montana. With multiple articles on the judicial system of Montana, Conservative News From Montana will continue to help make sure that the citizens are afforded the opportunity to hear the truth to the best of our ability.
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