Attorney General Knudsen appeals ruling that stops voters from choosing Supreme Court election method, asks justices to recuse

Attorney General Knudsen appeals ruling that stops voters from choosing Supreme Court election method, asks justices to recuse

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen today appealed a Bozeman judge’s ruling that stops voters from being able to choose how they elect state Supreme Court justices. He also called on current Supreme Court justices to disqualify themselves from the case because each “has a significant personal interest in how and where they must campaign to keep their jobs.”

Sponsored by Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, House Bill 325 would place a referendum on the November ballot allowing voters to choose if Montana should elect Supreme Court justices by district instead of statewide, as is currently done. If approved by voters, the state would be divided into seven Supreme Court districts and require candidates to run within one of them. It would not require candidates to run in the district where they live.

A Bozeman judge erroneously decided in March that the legislative referendum would conflict with the 2012 Supreme Court Reichert ruling. The substance of the order in McDonald v. Jacobsen will be addressed when the appellate brief is filed in the coming weeks.

“Voters deserve the opportunity to decide for themselves how Supreme Court justices are elected. Judges should not deprive Montanans of that opportunity,” Attorney General Knudsen said.

Attorney General Knudsen also filed a motion to disqualify the current Supreme Court justices from the case because each has a substantial interest in how and where they seek re-election.

“Montana’s constitutional system rests on the bedrock assumption of ‘an independent, fair, and impartial judiciary’ which can only be preserved through ‘the appearance of judicial propriety and independence,’” the motion reads. “Montana law, therefore, requires judges and justices to disqualify themselves when they have an interest in the outcome of a case. Each justice of this Court holds a clear, direct, and personal interest in the outcome of this case.”

Additionally, the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.12(A) reads: “A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

While the Supreme Court may say this issue was decided in the same 2012 decision relied on to block voters from choosing the method of election for justices, Reichert is non-binding because it was only handed down by four justices and wasn’t raised by parties to the case. Judges also have an obligation to decide if they must disqualify themselves with every new case.

If the court does believe Reichert is binding precedent, it should be overruled because it was poorly reasoned and undermines public confidence in an impartial judiciary.

Click here to read the Motion to Disqualify. Click here to view the notice of appeal. Both were filed today at the Montana Supreme Court.

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