The Montana Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Montana. It meets in the Justice Building in Helena, the state's capital. Founded in 1864, the court now consists of six associate justices and one chief justice who are elected to eight-year terms. The supreme court has appellate and original jurisdiction, and since there is no intermediate appellate court in the state, the supreme court receives appeals directly from the district courts, Water Court, and Workers' Compensation Court.
Justices of the Montana Supreme Court
The Montana Supreme Court presently consists of a chief justice and six associate justices. Justices are elected. In the case of a mid-term vacancy, the governor may appoint an interim justice, who must run in the election following their appointment if they wish to retain their seat.
The current justices of the court are:
- See also: Judicial selection in Montana
Montana Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms following a general election. If a vacancy occurs mid-term, the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission submits the names of three to five nominees to the governor. The governor selects one nominee to appoint to the vacant position. If the governor fails to do so within thirty days, the chief justice makes the selection. The appointment must be confirmed by the state senate; if the senate is not in session, the recess appointee serves until the next session. After having been appointed, the justice must run in the next general election to retain the seat for the remainder of the term. Thereafter, a justice serves for terms of eight years, subject to challenge by opponents. Any incumbent judge who is running unopposed in a general election will be subject to a retention election.
A qualified candidate for the Montana Supreme Court must be a citizen of the United States, and a resident of the state for no less than two years. Candidates must also be admitted to practice law in the state for not less than five years and must reside in Montana during their term.
As administrative head of the court, the chief justice presides over the court during hearings, and is considered the representative of the court at official state functions. The position of chief justice is an elected position on the court determined by voters with the general election.
Since Montana does not have an intermediate appellate court, the state supreme court hears appeals from all of the district courts across the state, as well as from the workers' compensation and water courts. This also means that appeals to the supreme court are "appeals of right," meaning that the court does not have discretion as to whether it accepts review of the lower court's decision. The Montana Supreme Court only has original jurisdiction over extraordinary writs, which include habeas corpus, injunction, review, mandate, quo warranto and supervisory control. This jurisdiction is concurrent with the state's district courts.
By statute, all decisions of the Montana Supreme Court must be in writing, and must set forth the grounds of the decision. All justices disagreeing with the majority's decision must indicate this in a written dissent.
| Fiscal Year
- See also: Montana Supreme Court elections, 2014
- See also: Montana judicial elections, 2014
| 2008 |
- See also: State Supreme Court elections, 2008
Mike McGrath and Ron Waterman competed to fill the seat left vacant by chief judge Karla M. Gray. McGrath succeeded in his bid.
| Montana Supreme Court |
2008 General election results
| Mike McGrath
| Ron Waterman
Incumbent Patricia O'Brien Cotter ran uncontested and was re-elected.
| Montana Supreme Court |
2008 General election results
| Patricia O'Brien Cotter
- See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices
In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Montana was given a campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Montana received a score of -0.87. Based on the justices selected, Montana was the 6th most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.
Rules of practice
As enumerated in the Montana Constitution, the court has administrative authority over the court system. Court rules on civil procedure for all levels of Montana courts can be found here. The supreme court has also promulgated Internal Operating Rules for its internal governance.
Boards and commissions
To assist in the supervisory role, the court appoints members to 20 boards and commissions. The list of these is below.
- Advisory Commission on Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure
- Board of Bar Examiners
- Civil Jury Instructions Guidelines Commission
- Commission of Continuing Legal Education
- Commission on Character and Fitness
- Commission on the Code of Judicial Conduct
- Commission on Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
- Commission on Practice
- Commission on Rules of Evidence
- Commission on Self-Represented Litigants
- Commission on Technology
- Commission on Unauthorized Practice
- Criminal Jury Instructions Commission
- District Court Council
- Equal Justice Task Force
- Gender Fairness Commission
- Judicial Nomination Commission
- Judicial Standards Commission
- Sentence Review Division
- Uniform District Court Rules Commission
The Montana Code of Judicial Conduct was created in 2008. It is comprised of four canons.
- A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
- A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.
- A judge shall conduct the judge's personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
- A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.
Read the code in its entirety here.
Removal of justices
The Montana State Legislature has the power to impeach or remove a sitting state judge with a two-thirds vote of the state house of representatives.
Montana Judicial Standards Commission
A complaint may also be filed about a judge with the Montana Judicial Standards Commission. The commission will make a recommendation to the Montana Supreme Court for further action, if warranted. A recommendation of discipline could be a private admonition, or warning, from the commission to the judge, or as serious as removal from the court.
Of the five commission members, two must be district judges from different judicial districts who are elected to the commission by the district judges. One member must be an attorney who has practiced law in Montana for at least 10 years. This individual is appointed by the supreme court. The other two members must be state residents, from different congressional districts, who are not, and never have been, judges or attorneys. They are appointed by the governor. There is a chair and vice-chair of the commission. The members of the commission serve terms of four years.
- See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements
In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Montana earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.
| • Right to sue for lack of government openness (2014)||Click for summary→|
|In a 6-0 decision, the Montana Supreme Court reversed its own 2006 ruling that required a plaintiff to prove personal injury in order to sue a government agency for lack of transparency and openness. The 2014 case was brought by Brian Shoof against the county commissioners of Custer County. In a closed, unannounced meeting in 2007, the commission decided that county officials could receive money instead of health insurance premiums. When Shoof learned of this policy in 2011, he filed a challenge to reverse the policy and get the cash payments returned. His case was dismissed by a district court, but the supreme court ruled on his behalf, ensuring that citizens have the ability to bring a lawsuit against a government agency for not complying with the state's right-to-know laws without having to prove their personal stake or injury.|
| • Doctor-assisted suicide (2009)|
(Baxter vs. Montana)
|Click for summary→|
|In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court made a decision in Baxter vs. Montana that would protect doctors from prosecution for assisting in the death of a terminally ill patient. Robert Baxter, the plaintiff, suffered from lymphocytic leukemia and had died the previous year. It was a 4-3 ruling, and four separate opinions were filed between the seven justices. The majority used a 1985 law to back their opinion, which dealt with the withdrawal of treatment for the terminally ill. Those in dissent said "[t]he statute provides no support for physicians shifting from idle onlookers of natural death to active participants in their patients’ suicides." Despite ruling in favor of Baxter, the decision did not address whether physician-assisted suicide was a constitutional right, leaving that debate for the Montana Legislature. Justice James Nelson was in the majority, but would have gone further to name it a constitutional right. In his opinion he wrote, "This right to physician aid in dying quintessentially involves the inviolable right to human dignity — our most fragile right."|
- 1864: Montana became a territory, and the Territorial Supreme Court was created with one chief justice and two associate justices.
- 1889: Montana joined the union and became a state on November 8. The Montana Supreme Court was created in Article VIII of the 1889 Constitution. Three members were to be elected to six-year terms in partisan elections.
- 1909: The state legislature created the "Nonpartisan Judiciary Act." Rather than running in partisan elections, this act required that candidates to the court be "nominated by citizen petition." This resulted in a very low voter turnout in the next general election in 1910.
- 1911: The "Nonpartisan Judiciary Act" was declared unconstitutional by Montana Supreme Court.
- 1919: The number of justices on the court was increased from three to five.
- 1935: Nonpartisan judicial elections were reintroduced.
- 1972: Term of office was increased to eight years with a constitutional amendment.
- 1979: The number of justices on the court was increased to seven.
- 1989: Diane Barz became the first female justice on the Montana Supreme Court. Prior to that, she was the first woman to serve as a district judge in the state.
|All former justices of the Montana Supreme Court:||click for list →|
|William E. Hunt||1985–2000|
|Jean A. Turnage||1985–2000|
|Charles E. Erdmann||1995–1997|
|Fred J. Weber||1981–1995|
|John C. Harrison||1961–1994|
|R. C. McDonough||1987–1993|
|John C. Sheehy||1978–1991|
|J. C. Gulbrandson||1983–1989|
|Frank B. Morrison||1981–1987|
|Daniel J. Shea||1977–1985|
|Frank I. Haswell||1967–1985|
|Gene B. Daly||1970–1983|
|James T. Harrison||1957–1977|
|John W. Bonner||1969–1970|
|Hugh R. Adair||1943–1968|
|Hugh H. Adair||1943-1968|
|Stanley M. Doyle||1961–1967|
|R. V. Bottomly||1949–1961|
|Albert H. Angstman||1929-1934; 1945–1961|
|Horace S. Davis||1954–1957|
|Forrest H. Anderson||1953–1956|
|Harrison J. Freebourn||1949–1954|
|Fred L. Gibson||1947–1949|
|I. W. Choate||1947–1949|
|Edwin K. Cheadle||1945–1947|
|Howard A. Johnson||1939–1946|
|Ralph L. Arnold||1939–1941|
|Claude F. Morris||1935–1947|
|Sam V. Stewart||1933-1939|
|Ralph J. Anderson||1933–1939|
|Walter B. Sands||1935–1938|
|John A. Matthews||1919–1920; 1925–1937|
|Llewellyn L. Callaway||1922–1935|
|Sam C. Ford||1929–1933|
|Albert J. Galen||1921–1933|
|Henry L. Myers||1927–1929|
|Albert P. Stark||1923–1929|
|William L. Holloway||1903–1926|
|Wellington D. Rankin||1924–1925|
|Charles H. Cooper||1919–1924|
|George W. Farr||1922–1923|
|Frank B. Reynolds||1921–1922|
|George Y. Patten||1919|
|William Trigg Pigott||1897–1903; 1918|
|Henry C. Smith||1907–1913|
|George R. Milburn||1901–1907|
|Robert L. Word||1900–1901|
|William Henry Hunt||1894–1900|
|Horace R. Buck||1897|
|William H. DeWitt||1889–1897|
|Edgar N. Harwood||1889–1895|
|Henry N. Blake||1875-1893|
- ↑ Montana Courts, "Contact Us," accessed March 21, 2014
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Montana Judicial Branch, "About Us," accessed on July 15, 2014
- ↑ Montana Courts, "Judicial Branch," accessed March 21, 2014
- ↑ Judicial selection in Montana
- ↑ Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article VII Section 8," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article VII Section 9," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana Legislature, "Montana Code Annotated 2014: 3-2-101," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana Legislature, "Montana Code Annotated 2014: 3-2-601," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana's Official State Website, "State of Montana Clerk of the Supreme Court: Case Load Statistics"
- ↑ Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
- ↑ Montana Judicial Branch, "Code of Judicial Conduct," December 12, 2008
- ↑ Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
- ↑ Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article V Section 13," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana Judicial Branch, "Rules of the Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Montana Judicial Branch, "Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
- ↑ Missoulian, "MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Montana Supreme Court rulings promote open government," January 19, 2014
- ↑ Miles City Star, "High court sides with man challenging officials," January 9, 2014
- ↑ New York Times, "Montana Ruling Bolsters Doctor-Assisted Suicide," December 31, 2009
- ↑ 20.0 20.1 Montana Judicial Branch, "Brief History of the Montana Judicial Branch," accessed December 9, 2014
- ↑ Wikipedia.org, "List of Justices of the Montana Supreme Court," accessed December 9, 2014
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