Montana Supreme Court Elections Question (June 2012)

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The Montana Supreme Court Elections Question did not make the June 5, 2012 primary election ballot in the state of Montana as a legislatively-referred state statute. The measure would have required that state supreme court justices only be elected and appointed from supreme court districts. The proposal would also have established those supreme court districts within the state. The formal title of the bill in 2011 state legislative session was Senate Bill 268 and was known as LR-119 before being removed form the ballot.[1][2][3]

Text of measure

Ballot language

The actual ballot language as it would have appeared:[4]

[] FOR requiring supreme court justices to be elected or appointed from districts with approximately equal populations.

[] AGAINST requiring supreme court justices to be elected or appointed from districts with approximately equal populations.

Ballot summary

The official ballot summary read as follows:[4]

The Montana Supreme Court is composed of seven justices, one of whom is Chief Justice. Under current law, the justices are elected statewide and each Montanan votes for all seven positions. LR-119 would change existing law so that each justice is elected from one of seven districts of approximately equal population, with the Chief Justice then chosen from the seven by majority vote of the justices. Only Montanans living in each district would vote for their district’s justice. Justices must reside in their district when initially elected.
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See also: List of ballot measure lawsuits in 2012

On November 23, 2011, a lawsuit to strike the measure from the ballot was filed by a group state voters which reports say included a handful of 1972 Constitutional Convention delegates. According to the lawsuit, the measure would illegally amend the Montana Constitution. The lawsuit specifically stated: "The referendum is illegal, unconstitutional and void, in that it deprives (voters) of their right to vote for certain Supreme Court candidates."[5] On Monday, January 9, seven, one from each of the proposed judicial districts, Republican legislators filed a motion to intervene in the case with Judge James Reynolds. They are asking the court to allow them to fight to help keep the measure on the ballot, according to their attorney, Sen. Art Wittich, "The (legislators') voting rights are directly impacted by the disposition of this case. As residents and voters of the proposed seven districts, the intervenors have a substantial interest in the subject matter of this action and should be allowed to intervene." The lawmakers who filed the motion are Sens. Joe Balyeat, who sponsored the bill, Edward Walker, and Greg Hinkle; and Reps. Mark Blasdel, Ryan Osmundson, Matthew Rosendale, and Kelly Flynn.[6]

On March 20, 2012, Judge Reynolds struck the measure form the ballot as unconstitutional saying that adding the new candidate requirements for Supreme Court justices, those which required candidates live inside proposed regional districts, conflict with what is already in the state constitution. Requests by supporters to simply remove the offending language were denied, with Judge Reynolds saying, "Without clear judicial legislation, this court cannot rewrite the remaining parts of this referendum. To do so would entail completely rewriting the title, the ballot statement, the statements of implication, and the text of the referendum itself. There is no constitutional or statutory authority for such a revision." Reportedly, both sides expect an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.[3]

The state did in fact appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court on Friday, April 6. The Montana Attorney General’s Office is asking the state Supreme Court to reverse the ruling because a lawsuit on the subject is "unripe," stating in a brief, "LR-119 is not presently in effect, and may never become law."[7]

In a 6-to-1 ruling delivered on Thursday, April 12, the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Reynolds's March decision. However, this ruling was on the request expedited appeal due to the June 5 date the measure is supposed to appear on the ballot. According to the court, a full opinion and analysis will follow. Reportedly, Sen. Balyeat expressed the opinion that all of the sitting Supreme Court justices should have recused themselves due to their interest in the outcome. Sen. Balyeat is considering appealing the case to federal court, although it is probably too late to put the measure back on the ballot.[8]

  • Documents in the case can be found here.

Path to the ballot

Section 8 of Article XIV of the Montana Constitution says that an affirmative roll call vote of two-thirds of all members of the Montana Legislature is required to refer an amendment to the ballot.

See also

External links