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Montana Attorney General Orders Dismissal Of Case Against Bozeman Bar

A neon sign reads "Rocking R Bar"
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Rocking R Bar in Bozeman, Mont., Nov. 17, 2020.

Montana’s Attorney General Thursday ordered the Gallatin County Attorney to dismiss a case against a Bozeman bar that intentionally ignored a health order curfew and warning.

A district court judge in December ruled that the Rocking R Bar must comply with Gallatin County’s Nov. 6 health order, which requires bars, tasting rooms, distilleries, casinos and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. in an effort to flatten the surge of COVID-19 cases, keep hospital beds open and improve contact tracing.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen Thursday ordered Gallatin County’s attorney to dismiss the case.

“The county is certainly able to promulgate its own rules. That's absolutely true, and I’ve taken no position on that. This is simply me exercising my supervisory authority,” Knudsen said, citing a section of state law that allows the attorney general to order and direct county attorneys in all matters pertaining to the duties of their offices.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said in a statement Thursday he and his staff are researching the issue, adding the Attorney General may lack the authority to order a county attorney to dismiss a case where local government, not the state, is the plaintiff.

Lambert said the rule of civil procedure Knudsen cited as giving him that authority actually applies to cases when all parties agree to dismiss.

“Today I talked to a party to the R Bar case, Health Officer Matt Kelley. Mr. Kelley does not agree to dismissal, so the rule cited by the attorney general cannot be employed to dismiss the case by noon on January 15, 2021,” Lambert wrote in a press release.

On Wednesday, Governor Greg Gianforte issued a state directive that, starting Friday, will remove curfews and capacity limits on Montana businesses.

Attorney General Knudsen said while counties have the authority under Montana statute to take actions to protect the public from infectious diseases, he called Gallatin County’s 10 p.m. business closure “a type of government overreach.”

“I don't think it makes sense to have one set of rules for coming from the state and one set of rules coming from the locals, particularly when it looks like local government’s trying to play power games over small businesses and their employees,” Knudsen said.

Knudsen ordered the county attorney to dismiss the case no later than noon Friday.