MT lawmakers, Supreme Court battle in pending separation of powers battle

HELENA, Mont. - The Montana Supreme Court is under investigation by state lawmakers.

After Governor Greg Gianforte signed SB 140 into law, allowing him to appoint judges to the district courts and state Supreme Court instead of going through a judicial nominating commission. Those judges would still have to be confirmed through the State Senate, but that is not the biggest issue at hand.

The investigation revealed Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath told the governor he was against this bill. Gov. Gianforte signed it anyway and almost immediately; this bill was challenged in the Supreme Court. McGrath recused himself from hearing this challenge because he had already made his opinion known.

Shortly after, District Judge Kurt Krueger of Butte also recused himself but only after the Attorney General pointed out that he had taken part in an online poll regarding the same challenge.

At this point, Republican legislators say they are now concerned about the larger practices and conduct of the supreme court, including deleting public records, prejudging cases and the ability to remain impartial - and they aren't taking this matter lightly.

"The importance of us defending our constitutional right to take and defend laws that we've passed and to be able to pass laws is a very serious consideration that we must make," Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith (R-Billings), said.

Democrats say this is nothing more than a witch-hunt and even went as far as saying these actions are an embarrassment for the state, saying Republicans are deepening a constitutional crisis that they manufactured.

"We all know the process is working as it is supposed to be,” Senator Diane Sands (D-Missoula) said. “We pass it, the governor signs it, the court interprets it. And this attempt to intervene isn't going to protect our ability to make law, it’s only going to cost the taxpayers."

So in the meantime, the court is not sure they can find another impartial judge at this point, as several judges took part in the online poll asking their opinion of the bill in question.

Now the state Supreme Court will move forward with the legal review, but with just six justices.

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