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Montana Chief Justice responds to legislative report

From the Complete coverage of Montana's ongoing legislative, judicial conflict series
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The chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court on Friday responded to a legislative report published earlier in the week, contending the court was well within its bounds to engage on legislation related to the judiciary.

"It has long been the accepted practice that state and local elected officials and respective staff members talk to legislators to support or oppose legislation while acting in their official capacities," Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote in a letter on Friday.

The correspondence follows a report released Wednesday by the Select Committee on Judicial Transparency and Accountability. The report developed over the last week largely bears the concerns Republicans have raised in the last month about the Supreme Court Administrator polling judges on pending legislation and gathering information for the Montana Judges Association, the judiciary's lobbying organization. 

McGrath, as chief justice, is a member of the association's legislative committee and uses email to communicate to that end, he wrote.

McGrath's letter also addresses the committee's claims that the court administrator, state district court judges and the chief justice misused government resources by using state email accounts during workhours to coordinate the polling and testimony from judges. 

The judicial branch's policy includes misuse for email toward activities that aren't related to the employee's job duties, but McGrath states engaging with legislation does relate to the employee's job duties.

"The (Judicial) Brand has an obligation to inform the Legislature as to how legislation affects Branch operations," McGrath wrote. "There has been no misuse of state resources."

McGrath said in the letter the Montana Judges Association will likely give more authority to its legislative committee in the future and discontinue the polling. The polling coming to light in April was a large part of why Republicans formed the committee and launched the probe that will continue into the interim session, calling the polls evidence of judges issuing opinions on pending legislation that could someday be challenged in court. 

Democrats, meanwhile, have decried the GOP's effort in the legislative and executive branches a "witch hunt" leading toward a constitutional crisis. One justice who has challenged the committee's subpoena in court called the probe an overreach by the other two branches of government.

"Justices do not take positions, nor do we meet or confer on matters pending before the Legislature," McGrath wrote Friday. "Justices make a sincere effort to refrain from involvement in or discussion of matters pending before the Legislature."


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