A pair of bills introduced in the Montana House of Representatives would allow citizens to form grand juries via petition, an idea historically popular in the right-wing militia movement that revives a failed 2010 ballot initiative.
Grand juries are groups of citizens that can investigate claims of criminal conduct. In both Montana statute and the state Constitution, only a district court judge can impanel a grand jury.
Great Falls Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway’s House Bill 405 and House Bill 589, the latter of which was heard in the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, aim to remove that restriction.
The bills are essentially the same, save for that HB 405 proposes a constitutional amendment subject to voter approval and HB 589 would amend statute. In both cases, the bills direct district court judges to impanel a grand jury if citizens can gather petition signatures from one half of one percent of the voters in a county. House Bill 405 specifies that county attorneys in the relevant jurisdictions must prosecute any indictment brought by the citizen grand jury, regardless of prosecutorial discretion.
“A grand jury is a fundamental constitutional right of we the people,” testified Bart Crabtree, the president of a non-governmental group called the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability, on Thursday.
Crabtree is the driving force behind the bills. Sheldon-Galloway acknowledged in committee that a citizens’ group had asked her to carry the bills, and deferred lawmakers’ questions to Crabtree. Crabtree also provided input on the language of the proposals to legislative staff, according to drafting materials associated with HB 405.
The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability, according to its website, seeks “to maximize direct citizen oversight of Montana’s judiciary and other government agencies.” Citizen grand juries are one of its primary issues.
Crabtree himself has a troubled history with the judicial system. In 2017, he was convicted of embezzling more than $5,000 from a girls’ softball program in Great Falls. He established the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability two weeks after he lost a state Supreme Court appeal of the conviction, according to the Helena Independent Record.
Crabtree envisions 11-person grand juries that have effectively total latitude to investigate possible crimes — or even just to obtain assurance that crimes are not being committed.
“[A grand jury] is the People’s sword and shield because it WORKS for the People to arrest evildoers and to PROTECT any individual against corrupt, vindictive and overzealous governments,” the website reads. “Citizens impaneled on Grand Jury are top of the pecking order, not judges or attorneys! WE THE PEOPLE have the authority and lawful power to arrest corrupt actors.”
Proponents of HB 589 on Thursday described citizen grand juries as a way to give a voice to the people when county attorneys decline to take up their issues.
“My concern is with the good ol’ boys club,” testified Lisa Bennett, a Carbon County activist who’s made waves in her community with sweeping claims of corruption and election fraud — claims the local county attorney has not pursued. “Attorneys are voted in, they’re paid by us, but they don’t work for us. Nothing can go forward unless the county attorney wants to press charges,” Bennett said
But the bills aren’t what they seem, said Brian Thompson, a lobbyist for the Montana County Attorneys’ Association, which is opposed to the proposals.
“This isn’t a grand jury scheme, this is a Spanish Inquisition scheme,” Thompson testified Thursday. “This is a forced prosecution of individuals that anyone can bring.”
In typical situations, a prosecutor comes to a grand jury and presents evidence of an alleged crime, Thompson said.
“He’s asking a jury of that person’s peers, ‘Do I have enough Information to proceed and prosecute this person?’ That’s what a grand jury is, it’s protection for the citizens,” he said.
“What we have here between HB 589 and HB 405 is the exact opposite. It is a required prosecution if a super-low number of people bring a petition. It is the exact opposite of constitutional protections and due process for individuals.”
The petition threshold laid out in the bill means that in some low-population counties — say, Petroleum — fewer than 10 citizen signatures would be required to compel a judge to impanel a grand jury.
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Once assembled, the bill says, the “jury is the sole judge of its duration and the breadth and depth of its inquiry.” In other words, it can investigate anything. Prosecutors who don’t pursue charges under the jury’s indictment could be subject to charges of obstructing justice and official misconduct.
Much of the bill’s language, including the petition threshold, comes from a 2010 ballot initiative that would have amended the state Constitution just as HB 405 now proposes. That proposal, led by Ravalli County political activist Duane Sipe, didn’t gather enough signatures to make it on the ballot.
“With the political environment in the country going on right now, we have to open up some ideas,” Sipe told Lee newspapers in 2009. “It is my opinion, and it is a lot of people’s opinion, we’re headed away from what the founders intended. We’re going into way too much government.”
The idea gained traction at the time with the Montana Constitution Party. A representative of the party told the Flathead Beacon in 2009 that citizen grand juries would allow people to peacefully wrest control from the federal government.
The Beacon reported that in the small handful of states where citizen grand juries are legal, they’ve mostly been used as political cudgels. In Georgia, for example, a grand jury swept up in birtherism tried to indict then-President Barack Obama.
In 2011, a Flathead County white supremacist tried to assemble a citizens’ grand jury to indict the Montana Human Rights Network, labeling it a “Jewish criminal organization,” according to the Missoulian. Several years later, the Bundy family sought to pursue indictments through grand juries in the midst of the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The idea is broadly popular among the rightmost fringes of American politics, testified Travis McAdam, who was in 2011 and still is with the Montana Human Rights Network.
“Make no mistake: Their purpose and history is creating a way to harass and intimidate perceived enemies,” he said.
Drafting documents indicate that Crabtree himself appears to have been turned on to the idea by a far-right Texas organization with a chapter in Montana called Tactical Civics. The group, aside from advocating for citizen grand juries, also seeks to restore local militias. In 2021, it barred a Helena Independent Record reporter from attending an organizing event in East Helena.
“Militia has gotten a bad rap and sometimes it’s deserved,” founder David Zuniga wrote in a 2021 press release. “We’re not a militia group but our chapters teach civics and help restore constitutional Militia.”
The state GOP’s platform as adopted last year also calls for “reforming the Grand Jury laws to better root out corruption.” Sheldon-Galloway is the party’s vice chair.
House Bill 589 did not receive a vote Thursday. House Bill 405 has yet to be heard in committee.
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