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Republican Lawmakers Again Clash With Judiciary Over Judicial Standards Commission

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath.

From now until the next Montana legislative session in 2023, state lawmakers are studying potential ways they can change the judicial system. That conversation is happening while tensions are high between the two branches of government.

Lawmakers are just beginning their study and invited Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath and District Court Judge Mike Menahan to answer questions about a board that oversees judicial ethical conduct.

The conversation resurfaced the ongoing dispute between lawmakers and judges about how the judiciary should operate, and the extent of legislative powers.

At the Tuesday meeting of the Interim Law and Justice Committee, Republican Rep. Barry Usher asked Chief Justice McGrath whether it was appropriate that the justice was critical of a bill concerning the judiciary during the last legislative session. Usher quoted a private email from McGrath that was obtained by lawmakers.

“Is giving Montanans more oversight, citizen oversight, of that branch, of your branch, really equivalent to killing democracy?” he said.

The bill from last session would have reformed the independent Judicial Standards Commission to a larger panel of citizens. The proposed new commission would have also had broader power to remove judges. That proposal failed.

McGrath said his comment was appropriate because he says he has an obligation to comment on the impact of bills that affect the judiciary.

“It didn’t require any kind of due process, it didn’t require any kind of standards,” he said.

The lawmakers' study comes after Republicans accused members of the judiciary of bias and misconduct related to internal polling among justices about proposed legislation. Judges and justices have adamantly denied that they’ve acted unprofessionally.

Republican Sen. John Esp said Tuesday’s meeting was informative and will help the committee craft new bills to reform the judiciary.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.