Chief Justice Mike McGrath, right, swears in Mike Cooney as Montana's 32nd lieutenant governor with Cooney's wife, Helena District Judge DeeAnn Cooney, at his side. - photo courtesy Gov. Steve Bullock's official Facebook page.

Helena District Judge DeeAnn Cooney has only been on the bench since Jan. 1, but already she’s presiding over one of the most high-profile political corruption cases the state has seen in decades.

On one side of the long-running litigation is Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, the state’s top political watchdog and campaign ethics enforcer.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman
Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman

On the other side is Bozeman Rep. Art Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader who Motl has accused in a lawsuit dating back to 2014 of violating state campaign laws by accepting illegal corporate campaign contributions, a charge Wittich vehemently denies.

Notable about Cooney’s role presiding over this case is the fact that both she and Motl were appointed to their current jobs by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, one of Wittich’s chief political rivals.

Notable, too, is the fact that one month after appointing Cooney to the district court bench, Bullock appointed her husband, Mike Cooney, to serve as his lieutenant governor.

That connection hasn’t been lost on close observers of the Motl vs. Wittich lawsuit, though with less than two months to go before the trial is set to begin, neither party in the case has raised the issue.

Wittich declined to comment for this story.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.

Motl said only that he expects Cooney will serve as the judge throughout the course of the trial.

“There aren’t any disqualification rules that suggest there’s anything improper,” Motl said.

Judge Cooney, through her clerk, declined to comment for a story involving an ongoing case she’s presiding over.

Bullock appointed Cooney on Dec. 1 to replace Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, who retired after more than 27 years on the bench. Sherlock had two years remaining on the term he was elected to in 2012. Cooney will serve out that term until the November election, at which point voters will decide if she gets to keep the job.

Bullock’s spokesman said his decision to appoint DeeAnn Cooney to the district court bench had nothing to do with the Wittich lawsuit.

“The governor did not consider this case, or any other case, as he made his decision for Judge Cooney’s appointment,” Bullock spokesman Tim Crowe said in an email.

Helena District Court Judge DeeAnn Cooney presides over court this week.(Great Falls Tribune Photo/Phil Drake)
Helena District Court Judge DeeAnn Cooney presides over court this week.(Great Falls Tribune Photo/Phil Drake)

Cooney is the fourth judge to be assigned to the Motl vs. Wittich lawsuit since it was filed in early 2014.

Wittich requested the first judge, Kathy Seeley, be substituted.

Montana law allows either party in a legal case to make a one-time substitution of the judge.

The next judge assigned to the case, Mike Menahan, then disqualified himself, perhaps because he formerly served as a Democratic Representative in the House. The case then went to Sherlock, who presided over the complex and politically charged litigation for more than a year before he retired.

University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone.

Anthony Johnstone, a professor of constitutional and election law at the University of Montana School of Law, said there’s nothing in the rules governing Montana judges that would disqualify Cooney from the case.

“There’s generally no question of impropriety when the person who appointed you also appointed one of the parties in the case,” Johnstone said. “That’s true throughout our legal system.”

Johnstone, who prior to joining the law school faculty served as Montana solicitor under then-Attorney General Steve Bullock, said Cooney and Motl, once appointed, are not answerable to the governor in any way.

Johnstone likened it to the federal courts in which federal judges, who are appointed by the President, regularly preside over cases brought by U.S. attorneys, who are also appointed by the president.

“That is why the appointment process is so important going forward,” Johnstone said. “Judges don’t have to answer to that person going forward, they have to answer to the law, and in Montana, they have to answer to the electorate.”

Motl has not requested a substitute judge in this case, and he said he doesn’t plan to.

“The state expects the trial will be before Judge Cooney,” Motl said.

John Adams began his professional career in 2001 in Idaho Falls, ID writing and editing for a variety of trade magazines. He covered topics ranging from potato and sugar beet farming to skate park and playground construction and maintenance. Adams started his newspaper career as the city government reporter for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he covered the City Hall, police, fire and local courthouse beats. In 2005 he joined the staff of the Missoula Independent in Missoula, MT where he worked as a staff reporter covering a wide range of issues including the environment,...