Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously rejected a petition to rehear the extensive court dispute between the Republican-led Legislature and the state judiciary, which was prompted by Republican lawmakers’ subpoena effort to acquire troves of documents from the judicial branch earlier this year.  

The court decided in July that the Legislature had acted improperly when it subpoenaed the Department of Administration to hand over documents from the separate branch of government. That subpoena triggered the release of court administrator Beth McLaughlin’s emails without a standard legal review to protect private information. 

The Legislature, represented by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, later requested that the court reconsider its unanimous decision, an option that is justified only under limited circumstances outlined in Montana law. The court’s Tuesday ruling found the Legislature did not meet those requirements. 

“[W]e conclude that the Legislature has not established grounds for rehearing. Instead, it mischaracterizes or misapprehends numerous provisions of the Court’s decision and suggests rulings the Court did not make,” the court wrote.

McLaughlin’s attorney, Randy Cox, had previously rebutted the Legislature’s motion for rehearing, saying the Republicans’ filing exceeded the bounds of a typical petition and repeated “earlier arguments, though now louder and with a threatening tone.” In a statement Tuesday, Cox praised the court’s decision.

“The petition for rehearing must have been written for political purposes because it came nowhere near meeting the legal requirements of the rule,” Cox said. “That the Court disposed of the petition quickly is no surprise.”

“[W]e conclude that the Legislature has not established grounds for rehearing. Instead, it mischaracterizes or misapprehends numerous provisions of the Court’s decision and suggests rulings the Court did not make.”

Montana State Supreme Court

Through a spokesman, the Legislature’s Republican majority indicated lawmakers are not conceding the decision as the end to the months-long conflict. 

“The Legislature gave the Court an opportunity to reconsider and clarify the concerning parts of its order. The justices addressed a couple of those items and ignored the others,” Kyle Schmauch said, adding that lawmakers on the special committee investigating the judiciary will be discussing “next steps” with one another, the attorney general’s office, and special counsel Abra Belke. 

Republican allegations of misconduct originated when district court judges were found to have shared candid disapproval of pending legislation in response to a standard poll conducted by the Montana Judges Association, which represents the judicial branch during the Legislative session. McLaughlin, who administered that poll, did not retain comprehensive email and phone records of responses from judges. While McLaughlin’s actions were not out of compliance with the judiciary’s document retention policies, Republicans cited them as reason for swiftly subpoenaing those records from the Department of Administration. 

Over months of court filings, Republicans used unorthodox legal tactics to emphasize claims of judicial misconduct, going as far as to file a motion asking all seven justices to recuse themselves because the case involved their colleague, McLaughlin, and pertained to the court’s own documents and the Montana Judges Association. The court denied that motion, saying such logic would likely disqualify every judge in the state. 

The Legislature also stated that the two branches of government should negotiate for information rather than remain locked in a court battle, and argued that its investigation into allegedly unethical behavior was a legitimate reason to seek the judiciary’s internal documents. Attorneys for lawmakers reiterated those points in an August petition for rehearing, writing that the judiciary “is merely a component of State Government” and is not meant to have sole oversight over its own functions, referencing the state Constitution’s creation of the Judicial Standards Commission to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct.

“The Legislature may investigate judicial officers for maladministration, particularly in view of what this investigation has so far uncovered — potential statutory, administrative, and ethical violations by judges and the Administrator that legitimately threaten public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary,” the Legislature’s motion said. 

In the Tuesday ruling, the court took issue with that assessment, reiterating that its July order did not broadly curtail the Legislature’s subpoena powers, its ability to “obtain appropriate information from a government official,” or future negotiations between separate branches of government. 

“Contrary to the Legislature’s arguments, the Opinion neither addressed nor foreclosed discussions between the branches or ‘refused any further consideration of production of the Court administrator’s public records,’” the court wrote.

In dismissing other assertions included in the Legislature’s motion, the court concluded that its previous order “is clear and speaks for itself.”

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.