Montana Supreme Court

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Montana Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   7
Founded:   1864
Location:   Helena, Montana
Chief:  $126,000
Associates:  $125,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Non-partisan election of judges
Term:   8 years
Active justices

Mike McGrath (Montana)  •  Patricia O'Brien Cotter  •  James Rice (Montana)  •  Michael E. Wheat  •  Laurie McKinnon  •  Jim Shea  •  Beth Baker  •  

Seal of Montana.png

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.[1][2]


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.[3][4]

The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Chief justice Mike McGrath (Montana)2009-2016Elected
Justice Patricia O'Brien Cotter2001-2016Elected
Justice James Rice (Montana)2001-2022Gov. Judy Martz
Justice Michael E. Wheat2010-2022Gov. Brian Schweitzer
Justice Laurie McKinnon2013-2020Elected
Justice Jim Shea2014-2016Gov. Steve Bullock
Justice Beth Baker2011-2019Elected

Judicial selection

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.[5]


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.[6]

Chief justice

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.[7]


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.[2]

Written decisions

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.[8]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2013 666 848
2012 621 702
2011 581 732
2010 572 629
2009 688 861
2008 506 783
2007 600 713




See also: Montana Supreme Court elections, 2014
See also: Montana judicial elections, 2014
Seat 1
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
RiceJames Rice (Montana)ApprovedAYes76.2%ApprovedA78.2%   ApprovedA
HerbertW. David Herbert No23.5%ApprovedA21.6%   DefeatedD
Seat 2
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
WheatMichael E. WheatApprovedAYes61.5%ApprovedA59.1%   ApprovedA
VanDykeLawrence VanDyke No38.2%ApprovedA40.8%   DefeatedD

Political outlook

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.[10]

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


Judicial ethics

The Montana Code of Judicial Conduct was created in 2008. It is comprised of four canons.

  1. A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
  2. A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.
  3. A judge shall conduct the judge's personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
  4. 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.[11][12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

Financial disclosure

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.[16]

Notable cases


  • 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.[20]

Notable firsts

  • 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.[20]

Former justices

See also

External links


  1. Montana Courts, "Contact Us," accessed March 21, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 Montana Judicial Branch, "About Us," accessed on July 15, 2014
  3. Montana Courts, "Judicial Branch," accessed March 21, 2014
  4. Judicial selection in Montana
  5. Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article VII Section 8," accessed December 9, 2014
  6. Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article VII Section 9," accessed December 9, 2014
  7. Montana Legislature, "Montana Code Annotated 2014: 3-2-101," accessed December 9, 2014
  8. Montana Legislature, "Montana Code Annotated 2014: 3-2-601," accessed December 9, 2014
  9. Montana's Official State Website, "State of Montana Clerk of the Supreme Court: Case Load Statistics"
  10. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  11. Montana Judicial Branch, "Code of Judicial Conduct," December 12, 2008
  12. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  13. Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article V Section 13," accessed December 9, 2014
  14. Montana Judicial Branch, "Rules of the Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
  15. Montana Judicial Branch, "Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
  16. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  17. Missoulian, "MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Montana Supreme Court rulings promote open government," January 19, 2014
  18. Miles City Star, "High court sides with man challenging officials," January 9, 2014
  19. New York Times, "Montana Ruling Bolsters Doctor-Assisted Suicide," December 31, 2009
  20. 20.0 20.1 Montana Judicial Branch, "Brief History of the Montana Judicial Branch," accessed December 9, 2014
  21., "List of Justices of the Montana Supreme Court," accessed December 9, 2014

Portions of this article have been taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Copyright Notice can be found here.

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