Shifting Montana Away from State Judicial Self-Policing Is Essential and Won't Get Easier Than Now

The Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability (MtSCOJA) is seeking reconsideration of HB685 that would entrust state judicial oversight to one retired district judge, one attorney, and seven citizens who are neither judges nor attorneys.
By: Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability
 
We seek to maximize direct citizen oversight.
We seek to maximize direct citizen oversight.
HELENA, Mont. - April 22, 2021 - PRLog -- "Our goal is effective judicial oversight, not a power struggle, supposedly over separation of government powers," says Bart Crabtree, president of the Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability (MtSCOJA).  The non-government, nonprofit organization (NGO) inspired state HB685 which failed by House vote after being passed by the House Judiciary Committee.  That defeated legislation would have made way for an amendment of the Montana Constitution to rename and restructure the state's Judicial Standards Commission to the Judicial Inquiry Commission comprised of one retired district judge, one attorney, and seven citizens who are neither judges nor attorneys.  The bill was sponsored by Representative Brad Tschida (R-HD97) and may have been a casualty of the recent turf war between Montana's Republican-led legislature and heavily Democrat-influenced judiciary.

Rather than MtSCOJA, it was SB140 that launched a court battle over certain coveted power to control the fate of some Montana state judges and justices.  The senate bill became law in March of this year and accordingly eliminated Montana's Judicial Nomination Commission, giving Governor Greg Gianforte unfettered power to fill state judicial vacancies.  Having to defend against a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that arrangement prompted state Attorney General Austin Knudsen to subpoena results of a poll suggesting the Montana Supreme Court justices presiding over the case were biased against the legislation at issue.  Apparently before its enactment, all the justices were asked their views on SB140 which they shared via emails that the Court's administrator, Beth McLaughlin, reportedly deleted after receiving Knudsen's referenced subpoena.  McLaughlin's arguable obstruction of justice is proving no more scandalous than related emails retrieved, allegedly including some of Montana's Chief Justice Mike McGrath that propose lobbying against MtSCOJA's/Tschida's HB685, stating, ". . . the problem here is it allows a citizen's commission to discipline or remove judges" and describing the bill's proposed Judicial Inquiry Commission as 'Where Democracies Go To Die'.

While Republican and Democrat state legislators chide each other's response to Montana's SB140 Scandal, MtSCOJA endeavors to rise above the fray according to Tracy Parrish, the NGO's Public Relations Director.  "We take basic cues from the National Forum On Judicial Accountability (NFOJA), a legislative initiative to maximize constitutionally sound, direct citizen judicial oversight, primarily by eliminating state judicial self-policing," Parrish explained.  The "About" page of NFOJA's online social network claims, "an imbalance of power results between judges and other Americans when judges directly or substantially control all the government processes for challenging their official conduct" and distinguishes "that imbalance of power from considerations of judicial corruption and related abuses of power."  MtSCOJA's website shares similar sentiments, one its president emphasized given indications that Montana Supreme Court justices consider lay citizens incapable of competently resolving judicial misconduct disputes: "State court judges are known to contend that only they are qualified to regulate and discipline themselves."

Crabtree elaborates, "Citizens of Montana who are not nor ever have been lawyers already resolve legal issues often much more complicated than whether a judge has been ethical through our service as jurors and grand jurors."  Then, harkening back to the SB140 Scandal and the arguable lobbying against HB685 it shows and may even further reveal, Crabtree shared plans to seek delayed reconsideration of HB685 by the House.  "This bill is a good first step towards a fair and impartial administration of justice in the State of Montana.  If we have to wait until 2023 to make a first step, it should be bigger – closer to the strategy for random selection of only lay citizens as NFOJA proposes.  NFOJA's model legislation would not only allow for much more potent, direct citizen oversight than HB685 contemplates, but would also better insulate our state's judicial disciplinary process from politics.  Reaching accord is not going to get easier than now, nor will it ever be less important than maintaining  a proper balance between judicial independence and judicial accountability in Montana," Crabtree pronounced.

Contact
Tracy Parrish,
Public Relations Dir.
***@mtscoja.org

Photo:
https://www.prlog.org/12866801/1
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