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Dueling Reports Show Stark Between Montana Democrats, Republicans Over Judicial Branch Investigation

Montana Public Affairs Network
The Montana Select Committee on Judicial Accountability and Transparency considers draft reports regarding an investigation into the judiciary branch May 5, 2021.

Republicans and Democrats on a special legislative committee are at odds over dueling reports summarizing an ongoing investigation into Montana’s judicial branch.

The minority report from Democratic lawmakers refutes GOP claims of alleged judicial bias and misconduct, saying Republican lawmakers and the Republican-led executive branch are trying to smear the judiciary.

It also accuses Republican legislators of conspiring with Gov. Greg Gianforte to access and release the judiciary’s records, which have been used as the basis for GOP claims that the judiciary improperly used state resources to oppose legislation last session.

Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton criticized Democrats' summary of the situation Wednesday, saying that their report doesn’t include footnotes to back those claims.

“I’d like to give the minority time to take their draft report and provide the documentary evidence that supports their assertions so the public can be confident in the veracity of their statements,” Vinton said.

Committee Democrats didn’t object to the motion but expressed frustration at the committee and its investigation.

Missoula Democratic Sen. Diane Sands said they could provide footnotes but her party doesn’t intend to engage further with the Republicans’ report.

“This is an attack on an independent judiciary with the intention of undermining the public’s belief that they have an independent, fair judiciary,” Sands said.

The special committee was formed after Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen released emails from a Montana Judges Association poll showing overwhelming opposition from judges to a bill giving the governor more power to fill vacant judge seats. The state Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the policy, which was challenged immediately after being signed into law.

In a separate case, Republican lawmakers are seeking records from Supreme Court administrator Beth McLaughlin, who has asked the high court to consider the legality of such subpoenas.

Justice Jim Rice recused himself from the case and was replaced by District Court Judge Donald Harris on Wednesday, following a request from Knudsen that all justices do the same.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.