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By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
The Montana Supreme Court in a 4-2 ruling rejected Republican Rep. Art Wittich’s appeal seeking a dismissal of a high-profile political corruption lawsuit.
Wittich, who has been accused by the state’s top political enforcer of “quid pro quo corruption” for accepting campaign services he didn’t pay for in his 2010 state Senate race, argued in district court that the lawsuit against him was improper and should be thrown out.
Wittich maintains Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl had no legal authority to bring the case against him because nobody has ever filed a political practices complaint against Wittich.
Wittich argued to the high court that Motl failed to satisfy certain prerequisites to filing the lawsuit against him, such as making a preliminary determination that there was sufficient evidence to justify prosecution of the action and perform a preliminary investigation.
Anaconda Judge Ray Dayton dismissed that argument last week, but Wittich appealed Dayton’s ruling to the Supreme Court in a move that threatened to postpone a highly anticipated jury trial schedule to take place in Helena beginning March 28.
Motl followed-up Wittich’s appeal to the Supreme Court with a motion asking the court to dismiss it on the grounds that the justices recently, and unanimously, ruled on a nearly identical legal issue in a separate case involving the commissioner of political practices.
In a three-page ruling published on the court’s website around noon on Friday, Chief Justice Mike McGrath ruled that the issues Wittich raised in his appeal are not immediately appealable before trial.
“We conclude that the issues on appeal are not matters implicating the court’s subject matter jurisdiction,” McGrath wrote. “…the arguments raised here are matters of statutory and administrative rule interpretation, not subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, the District Court’s order denying Wittich’s motion to dismiss this case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is not immediately appealable.”
Justices Patricia Cotter, Michael Wheat, and Jim Shea affirmed McGrath’s ruling with Justices Laurie McKinnon and Jim Rice dissenting.
In her dissent, McKinnon accused the court of mischaracterizing Wittich’s argument when it stated “there is no contention that the COPP failed to exhaust statutorily required administrative remedies prior to bringing this action.”
“…[I]n fact, Wittich’s undisputed contention is that neither a complaint alleging Wittich as a violator was filed with the COPP … nor has the COPP issued a notice and order of noncompliance against Wittich,” McKinnon wrote.
McKinnon wrote that she believes “Wittich is entitled to have his motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction adequately briefed and considered by the Court.”
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, issued an email statement Friday expressing surprise at the high court’s handling of the matter, specifically the fact that the court suspended it’s standard operating rules allowing 11 days to file a response to a motion to dismiss. The court gave Wittich’s side seven days to respond to Motl’s motion.
“We were not aware of such a request having been made in this case, and we know of no order that had suspended the rules for this case,” Rhoades said. “Normally such matters, again per the internal operating rules of the Court, are put on the agenda for the Court’s Tuesday afternoon motions conference.
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“In any event, we were of course disappointed the court dismissed the appeal, although we do agree with the reasoning of Justices McKinnon and Rice, who wrote in dissent. We are now looking forward to our day in court before a jury of Mr. Wittich’s fellow Montanans.”
It is not immediately known what the impact of today’s ruling will be on the jury trial scheduled for March 28.
Motl declined to comment on the order.
This story was updated on 03/18/2016 at 13:17 with a statement by Quentin Rhoades.