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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:   Nonpartisan 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. The court 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 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. In the case of a mid-term vacancy, the governor may appoint an interim justice. The Montana Judicial Nominating Commission must submit between three and five nominees to the governor, after which the governor has 30 days to appoint one to the vacant position. If the governor does not select a nominee in time, the chief justice must make the appointment. 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 interim 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.[3][4][5]


A qualified candidate for the Montana Supreme Court must be a citizen of the United States, and the candidate must be 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 with other justices on the court, the chief justice runs in nonpartisan elections and serves eight-year terms. The chief justice presides over the District Court Council, which administers the state funding of the district courts.[7][2][8]


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. Because of the right of all people to appeal, the Montana Supreme Court has no discretion to turn down appeals of lower court decisions.[2]

The supreme court has original jurisdiction, meaning it may hear and decide original cases, as opposed to appellate cases. It may exercise original jurisdiction over writs of habeas corpus and has supervisory control over lower courts, according to the Montana Constitution. It may also exercise original jurisdiction in cases that have not gone to the district courts, as long as there are no facts in dispute and the case presents only legal or constitutional questions.[2]

Written decisions

All of the Montana Supreme Court's decisions must be in writing and state the grounds of the decision. Justices concurring with the decision must sign it, and justices who dissent must do so in writing.[9]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2014 * *
2013 666 848
2012 621 702
2011 581 732
2010 572 629
2009 688 861
2008 506 783
2007 600 713


  • Montana has not yet provided caseload data for 2014.



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
VanDykeLawrence VanDyke No38.2%ApprovedA40.8%   DefeatedD
WheatMichael E. WheatApprovedAYes61.5%ApprovedA59.1%   ApprovedA

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.[11]

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 composed 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.[12][13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[21]

Location of the court

The Montana Supreme Court meets in the Justice Building in the capital city, Helena.[1]

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.[21]

Former justices

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Montana Courts, "Contact Us," accessed March 21, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Montana Judicial Branch, "About Us," accessed on July 15, 2014
  3. Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article VII Section 8," accessed December 9, 2014
  4. Montana Courts, "Judicial Branch," accessed March 21, 2014
  5. Judicial selection in Montana
  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: 3-1-1602," accessed April 25, 2015
  9. Montana Legislature, "Montana Code Annotated 2014: 3-2-601," accessed December 9, 2014
  10. Montana's Official State Website, "State of Montana Clerk of the Supreme Court: Case Load Statistics"
  11. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  12. Montana Judicial Branch, "Code of Judicial Conduct," December 12, 2008
  13. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  14. Montana Legislature, "Montana Constitution: Article V Section 13," accessed December 9, 2014
  15. Montana Judicial Branch, "Rules of the Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
  16. Montana Judicial Branch, "Judicial Standards Commission," accessed December 9, 2014
  17. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  18. Missoulian, "MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Montana Supreme Court rulings promote open government," January 19, 2014
  19. Miles City Star, "High court sides with man challenging officials," January 9, 2014
  20. New York Times, "Montana Ruling Bolsters Doctor-Assisted Suicide," December 31, 2009
  21. 21.0 21.1 Montana Judicial Branch, "Brief History of the Montana Judicial Branch," accessed December 9, 2014
  22. Wikipedia.org, "List of Justices of the Montana Supreme Court," accessed December 9, 2014
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