Due Process In The Eighth Judicial Court Called Into Question

By Tim Ravndal

The 8th Judicial District Court in Great Falls Montana has been on the front page of decisions made regarding citizens rights. The process established in the court that is purported to provide a full and extensive protection of the Constitutional Rights of an individual is being called into question.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) oversees the family services division where child protective services (CPS) is in place to intervene in cases where children and families are in danger. This department has been called to the mat for potential violations of the rights of citizens multiple times within the Great Falls area. There are documented cases where officials usurped power with little or no oversight under the past director of DPHHS Sheila Hogan.

Shelia Hogan was first appointed to lead DPHHS in 2016 by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Governor Greg Gianforte has a new director in that department. Ms. Hogan now enjoys the administrative authority granted to non-elected officials in the Montana Department of Administration.

Tracy Rearden was engaged in an estranged relationship where she and her children feared for their safety. With multiple alleged business associations between her ex-husband and several high level officials within the Great Falls area, the hope for relief and protection through the system in place failed to provide Tracy an essential safety net for her and her children. The need for help and protection fell extremely short according to Tracy.

Those seeking help in the Great Falls area are regularly reporting they are finding closed doors when responsible officials administering DPHHS and specifically CPS are called into question.

Recently many cases that are documented were turned over to the Montana inspector General for further investigation of alleged violations of the Constitutional Rights of the citizens seeking help from DPHHS. We recently covered a 6 hour meeting where JoAnne Malone provided a venue for citizens to have their concerns heard before elected legislative representatives. At that meeting, there were many citizens that garnered courage to tell their story, but there were many that feared retaliation. Multiple citizens spoke to us but wished to keep their story confidential due to the fear of retaliation. Those seeking help are finding opposition to hearing the full story and often become a statistic like Tracy.

Fearing for her life and the safety of her children Tracy took flight. As stated earlier by Tracy, relationships between her ex-husband and those in authority in the Great Falls area placed a net in motion. Tracy was arrested and charged with felony kidnapping of her own child.

Tracy spent the next multiple months working through the 8th Judicial Court system trying to defend her Constitutional Rights in the case BDC-17-418 against her. A court appointed attorney assigned to the case began the process where Tracy began producing documents showing the truth. In her quest to present the truth in her defense, the process was regularly derailed according to Tracy. The Court appointed attorney assigned to defend Tracy regularly made agreements with the prosecution, ignoring Tracy’s regular calls for her defense to be fully presented. Many phases of this case have been administered via electronic messaging between the court and the public defender leaving Tracy outside the process.

The court appointed attorney along with the Judge presiding over the case moved the case to mediation where again Tracy found her hands tied to properly present the information she believed she needed in her defense. A mediation hearing was held outside of the public and a deal was struck between the attorney and the prosecution to resolve the case. Tracy was not comfortable with the conditions her public defender presented to her for approval and repeatedly asked for modifications to the plea agreement.

After multiple attempts to communicate with her court appointed attorney to no avail, Tracy was forced to seek representation Pro-se. Tracy made the request for the removal of the court appointed attorney based on her belief that her rights were not being represented. In her request to terminate the public defender. Judge Best denied Tracy’s motion to move forward without an attorney representing her.

Attorney M.B. Lowy was then brought into the case to represent Tracy, but again the legal maneuvering behind the curtain continued. Mr. Lowy was tasked with bringing full discovery into the case but according to Tracy, her challenge was ignored.

The continuing lack of communication between Tracy and her attorney brings this story to the front lines here in Montana. A court hearing was held before District Court Judge Best where the lawyers, and the judge exchanged dialogue regarding moving the case forward based on the agreement between them. Tracy raised her right to speak before the court for clarification of her concerns, but Judge Best denied her that right. The procedural process in the court hearing was set up and specifically provided for only the attorneys to discuss the case.

Tracy brought her concerns directly to Mr. Lowy but the hearing closed without providing her any opportunity to bring forward anything in her defense. Tracy was then forced again to give notice to vacate further representation by Mr. Lowy. Based on Tracy’s motion to dismiss Mr. Lowy, he was withdrawn from the case.

Tracy further advised us that her motion to dismiss Mr. Lowy is based on her belief that her rights have been infringed upon and she wants to proceed to trial representing her rights in person on her own. Tracy attempted to clarify that to Judge Best in the hearing, but was denied that opportunity as the judge stated that only the attorneys were allowed to speak.

The defendant has moved to remove the attorney based on her claim of lack of representation and her rights as a citizen. Judge Best denied the defendant in the case the right to speak to the court and advised her that only the attorneys were authorized to speak at this hearing. The defendant, who was forced to participate in the proceedings via zoom, found the ability to properly represent her rights and/or to communicate with her attorney left her with the question of due process.

Tracy is finding the process volatile, and problematic in securing a true seat at the table in her defense. Based on the motion by Tracy to dismiss her attorney, the public defender’s office under Montana law is now tasked with providing Tracy a new attorney. Judge Best took her authority to maintain control over the case and ignored Tracy’s move to represent herself. Judge Best has now scheduled a hearing for the 23rd of August 2021 to appoint a new public defender in the case against Tracy’s motion before the court.

According to Tracy, the proceedings to date have gone against her quest for justice and she advised the court of her wish to proceed as a citizen under federal law.

Stay tuned for Justice!

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