Dear readers, 

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 27-31. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP reporters’ look back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Mara Silvers’ turn.

Much of this year was spent tracking big shifts in state politics as a new conservative agenda took root across the state. One of the players I was assigned to follow was Attorney General Austin Knudsen. We published this profile in June, six months into Knudsen’s tenure as the state’s top lawyer. By then, he had already ruffled the feathers of the state judiciary with his unapologetically aggressive legal tactics and made clear that he wouldn’t hesitate to buck bureaucratic business as usual.

How Austin Knudsen is flipping the script of attorney general

Montana Free Press interviewed more than a dozen former Department of Justice attorneys and legal observers. Some described Knudsen’s actions toward the judiciary as “breathtaking” and “embarrassing” for the legal profession. Others said the office’s tactics seem intentionally designed to undermine Montana’s democratic institutions. Knudsen says he’s doing what voters expect of him.

Most weeks, I still think about what I heard from lawyers and judges in the course of reporting that story. At the time, I had no idea that Knudsen would later spark a political firestorm by dispatching a Montana Highway Patrol officer to St. Peter’s Hospital in response to a family’s dispute with medical providers. What I did know was that many legal veterans with more gray hair than me saw Knudsen as a norm-buster non-pareil — and that Knudsen wears that characterization with pride.

Another topic I’ve kept turning over in my mind is the future of abortion access in Montana, which now hinges on several legal challenges playing out in state and federal courts. Back in April, I wrote about the legal landscape that guarantees abortion access in Montana under the state Constitution’s right to privacy. The foundational Montana case, Armstrong v. State, is basically the state’s version of Roe v. Wade, though the right to an abortion in Montana has not been watered down the way Roe has been nationally. That may or may not be about to change, depending on the outcome of Planned Parenthood of Montana’s challenge to several abortion restriction laws passed by the Legislature this year. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering other cases that could overturn Roe entirely. What those challenges mean for Montana is still months in the future. 

Abortion wasn’t the only hot-button civil rights issue that landed on my desk this year. The Gianforte administration and much of the Republican-held Legislature pushed forward a slate of bills aimed at what sports teams transgender Montanans can play on, what medical treatments they can access, and how they can update their birth certificates. Proponents and opponents fought tooth and nail for and against those bills all session. Two of them eventually landed on the governor’s desk, where Gianforte signed them into law.

Outside of the Capitol building, I had the chance to dig into some complex local policy issues, including how Bozeman and Gallatin County can mend the holes in their patchwork mental health system. That story reminded me just how thorny and heated local debates can get, especially when so many people are invested in finding solutions. 

Whether in Helena or elsewhere around the state, I’m sure these big swings in politics and policy will continue throughout the new year. I’m looking forward to being there to report them.

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.