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Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is no stranger to headlines or controversy.

Since taking office, Knudsen has inserted himself into legal matters ranging from county-level prosecutions to deportation fights in other states to challenges to federal law that protects transgender people.

And Knudsen makes no bones about the fact that he’s not too concerned what people think about his aggressive approach to his job as the state’s top lawyer.

“I think people probably aren’t used to seeing the attorney general in the state of Montana actually taking some action and doing anything,” Knudsen said. “And you know, if that’s the reputation that I have, I’m OK with that. I’m absolutely more active. I’m absolutely more hands-on and certainly probably more aggressive than anybody has seen.”

Back in June, MTFP’s Mara Silvers profiled Knudsen and unpacked some of the debates that were already swirling around his still-brief tenure in office. It’s worth a read if you missed it the first time around.

Knudsen made headlines again this week when Lee newspapers’ State News Bureau broke the story that three unnamed public officials “harassed and threatened” staff and medical providers at St. Peter’s Health in Helena over what the officials believed was mistreatment of a patient.

The patient’s family contacted Knudsen’s office, and the attorney general dispatched a Montana Highway Patrol officer to the hospital to investigate.

By law, the highway patrol has no jurisdiction in such matters, and the incident raised the ire of Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, who said Knudsen overstepped his authority.

The incident has renewed concerns among sheriffs statewide about the potential for jurisdictional creep of the highway patrol into local law enforcement matters.

“For 35 years sheriffs have been concerned about a state agency becoming a state police force, which nullifies the authority of the sheriff,” Dutton said.

In the wake of this high-profile incident, Montana Free Press took a deep dive into the long-standing tensions between local law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Justice.

And as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue their late-summer surge into fall (primarily among unvaccinated people), Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday announced a statewide effort to expand the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments. Speaking at a press conference at St. James Healthcare in Butte, Gianforte announced the opening of a new 12-person clinic aimed at reducing the strain on St. James and other Montana hospitals struggling to keep up with caseloads exacerbated by staffing shortages.

Even as the pandemic continues to rage in Montana, Alex Sakariassen reports that public school enrollment is up 4.2% over fall 2020, according to preliminary state data. This month’s count also indicates that current public school enrollment is 1.7% higher than pre-COVID levels recorded in fall 2019.

And in non-COVID news, this week an attorney for the state Legislature released a memo in response to a request from 86 of Montana’s 98 GOP lawmakers who have called for a special legislative committee to probe the security of Montana’s elections. According to the memo, House and Senate leaders can’t create such a committee on their own. That kind of committee would require a majority vote in the House, and that vote would require a special legislative session, which can only be convened by the governor or by a majority of legislators.

Keep reading for more news and insights from the reporters and editors at Montana Free Press.

— John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Tweetstorm, Explained

The commission responsible for dividing Montana into two U.S. House districts for elections starting in 2022 heard feedback from the public this week on possible political maps. Most left-leaning commenters voiced support for one of five maps floated by the commission’s Democrats, proposals that group Missoula, Bozeman, Helena and Butte together in a southwestern district that would be easier for Democratic candidates to win than the east-west-split maps favored by Republicans.

But former state Rep. Tom Winter, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful primary bid for the U.S. House in the 2020 cycle, took to Twitter to criticize his own party’s proposals, writing that “many do not pass the eye test for a gerrymander.”

Winter also argued that bundling the blue strongholds of western Montana will ultimately hurt the state Democratic Party by discouraging it from prioritizing efforts to win over rural and Native American voters in the eastern part of the state.

The districting commission, which took a full day of testimony on the map options Tuesday, had hoped to settle on a single finalist map this week. Instead, with the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans unable to agree on a consensus proposal, commission Chair Maylinn Smith chose to have the partisan members advance a single finalist map from each party for further public comment.

— Eric Dietrich

This just in

Long-awaited news broke on the COVID-19 vaccine front Wednesday when the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters. The FDA also authorized the mixing and matching of booster doses, meaning you can get a Pfizer, Moderna or J&J booster regardless of which vaccine you originally got — provided you meet the eligibility criteria. For more on that and other COVID-19 info, check out MTFP’s updated COVID FAQ. And if you’ve got a COVID-related question you’d like us to look into, send it to news@montanafreepress.org.

— Alex Sakariassen

By the numbers

Estimated cost of the first day of a special session of the Montana Legislature, which would be necessary to call a House vote, which would be necessary to create a special legislative committee to probe the security of Montana’s elections, as recently called for by 86 of Montana’s 98 Republican lawmakers.

Departed 

The death of Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person last week at age 92 sparked a round of remembrances from the Great Falls Tribune to the New York Times honoring the country’s longest-serving elected tribal leader. This week, the Montana Historical Society posted a 2002 interview with Chief Old Person conducted by decorated Montana broadcaster and current MHS trustee Norma Ashby Smith to commemorate the 50th anniversary of North American Indian Days in Browning. Watch it here.

— Brad Tyer

Verbatim

“You telling me those NRA bastards will kill this bill? It’s a pro-gun bill, for God’s sake. Who wants the ‘bad guys’ to have guns?”

— U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, discussing a 2013 Senate vote on an amendment to strengthen background checks on private gun purchases in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, as quoted in “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America,” by Montana-based author Ryan Busse.

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers: Here’s an issue that brings together infrastructure debates, local and federal politics and a decades-old civil rights law: sidewalks. This Kaiser Health News article explores the sprawling, nationwide effort to leverage the Americans With Disabilities Act to create ADA-accessible neighborhoods and cities. It made me feel flummoxed and hopeful all at once.

Eric Dietrich: I’ve been watching Montana’s independent districting commission try to split the state into two U.S. House districts this week. Here’s a look at how the equivalent processes are going in Oregon and Texas, where the maps are being drawn by state legislatures under the control of specific political parties.

Amanda Eggert: A key piece of President Biden’s climate agenda that would use both carrots and sticks to encourage utility companies to obtain power from renewable sources appears to be stymied by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. NPR explains why that might be (spoiler: deep ties to the fossil fuel industry) and what’s at stake.

Alex Sakariassen: With this week’s defeat of a sweeping voting rights bill in the U.S. Senate — a bill designed by Democrats to counter new state laws in Montana and elsewhere that they characterize as a threat to the democratic process — I found it incredibly helpful to read some deeper context in The Atlantic about how the situation ties to debate over the filibuster and the actions of a single red-state Democrat: Manchin.

Brad Tyer: If you’re watching “Maid” on Netflix (and you probably are: it’s currently the streamer’s #3-ranked show in the U.S.) you might be illuminated by this Vox Q&A with Missoula author Stephanie Land, who wrote the book on which the limited series is based. It’s chock full of insights into the freelance writing life, the systemic hurdles facing working women, and the racial disconnects in media portrayals of poverty.

*Linked articles may be behind a paywall.