Gov. Greg Gianforte enters the House chamber
Gov. Greg Gianforte enters the House chamber before giving his State of the State address in the Montana State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 25. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Gov. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday announced that he will appoint attorney Greg Bonilla to the upcoming vacancy in Montana’s 9th Judicial District Court, which comprises Glacier, Toole, Pondera and Teton counties. 

The position’s current occupant, Judge Robert Olson, will retire in April, he said late last year. 

“A Shelby native, Gregory is an accomplished attorney distinguished by his professionalism, intellect, and diverse legal background,” Gianforte said in a statement. 

Bonilla has worked as an attorney at County Litigation Group in Helena for 14 years, defending counties, special districts and government officials in a variety of legal areas, he said in his application. Many of the cases against his clients are brought under Section 1983, federal code allowing individuals to bring civil rights claims against state and local governments, he wrote. 

He received letters of support from Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, officials with the Montana Association of Counties, friends and numerous county commissioners, among others. He listed both Rice and Justice Dirk Sandefur as references. 

“All I can say is I’m grateful to the governor for the opportunity,” Bonilla told Montana Free Press Wednesday.

Bonilla was one of two candidates for the judgeship. The other was Dan Guzynski, a long-time criminal prosecutor and the chief of the prosecution services bureau at the state Department of Justice. Both lawyers sat for closed-door interviews with a Gianforte-appointed advisory council of community leaders last month in Conrad. After private deliberations, the council agreed to recommend both candidates as qualified — but with the note that nine council members chose Guzynski as their first pick and only one chose Bonilla. 

“I have worked extensively in the 9th Judicial District as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice,” Guzynski told MTFP Wednesday. “I was really looking forward to working in that district. I have family in the area.” 

He added that he was honored to be the council’s first choice and to have received the support of a variety of legal figures in the state — including Judge Olson, Supreme Court Justice Laurie McKinnon and other district court judges. Attorney General Austin Knudsen was listed as a reference on his application. 

“I am disappointed by the governor’s pick, but I respect his decision and I wish Mr. Greg Bonilla the best of luck as a judge,” Guzynski said. 

Both Guzynski and Bonilla applied for the vacancy in Helena’s First Judicial District in 2020, though neither were selected. Bonilla went to law school at University of California, Berkeley. Guzynski, originally from Michigan, got his law degree from the University of Montana.

But Guzynski also ran an unsuccessful bid for the Legislature as a Democrat in 2014 — a potential political liability in a state government heavily dominated by the GOP. His most recent campaign was for the non-partisan Lewis and Clark County attorney job in 2022. 


Bonilla, on the other hand, has only run for office once, unsuccessfully vying for Chouteau County attorney in 2002. And among other community roles, he serves on the board of directors of Options Clinic, a “crisis pregnancy center” that offers some reproductive and sexual health services but also counsels pregnant women against getting abortions. Gianforte, a Republican, is staunchly pro-life. 

Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for Gianforte, said the governor faced a difficult decision since both candidates are highly qualified. Price pointed to Gianforte’s public statement, “where he cites Bonilla’s professionalism, intellect, and the depth of his legal background, which includes experience in both civil and criminal law.”

She said that Guzynski’s past as a Democratic candidate was not a detriment to him as the governor made his decision, nor was Bonilla’s membership on the Options Clinic board a boon. 

“No, and these are absurd, tin-foil hat questions,” Price said. 

The governor has unilateral authority to appoint judges to court vacancies under Senate Bill 140, a law passed during the 2021 session and affirmed by the state Supreme Court following a legal challenge. In other words, he’s not bound to the advisory council’s recommendation. 

SB 140 eliminated the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission, a seven-person vetting panel comprising both gubernatorial appointees and representatives of the court system. The commission sifted through applications, solicited public comment, conducted interviews and then ultimately referred a list of candidates from which the governor was to make a selection, all in the public eye. 

SB 140 doesn’t lay out a specific process to replace the commission, only that the candidate must be eligible to be a judge under the law, the governor must allow for public comment when filling judicial vacancies and the state Senate has to confirm the governor’s appointment. When the Senate in 2021 voted against the confirmation of a judge in the 8th Judicial District appointed by Gianforte’s Democratic predecessor, Steve Bullock, the new governor had his first chance to wield his new authority. 

He established an advisory council to vet and recommend candidates for the judgeship, a precedent that has held through several vacancies since. 

The advisory council for the 9th District assembled the morning of March 23 in Conrad — “a public meeting to consider applicants and review Montanans’ public comments,” the governor’s office said in the statement announcing Bonilla’s appointment. 

While the meeting began with doors open, the presiding officer, Teton County Deputy Attorney Jennifer Stutz, decided the council would conduct its interviews and deliberations in private, explaining that both Bonilla and Guzynski had invoked their rights to privacy. One member of the council, former newspaper publisher LeAnne Kavanagh, resigned in protest.

As such, it’s not clear what questions were asked, what the council members thought of the reams of letters of support for both candidates — 34 for Guzynski and 23 for Bonilla — and so on. All that was announced was that the council recommended both candidates but ranked Guzynski first. Gianforte met with both candidates as well, his office said.

[Editor’s note: The Choteau Acantha and Montana Free Press were both present at the meeting and protested closing the proceedings, arguing that the privacy rights of candidates for a judgeship do not outweigh the public’s right to know. Statute says the decision falls to the presiding officer.

Council members, Olson and other letter-writers recognized both candidates as qualified. Even so, advisory council member and Conrad City Attorney Dan Jones said after the council’s meeting last month that he thought Guzynski could step into the role and serve the needs of the district more quickly than Bonilla, especially on criminal and abuse and neglect cases. 

K. Webb Galbreath, the Blackfeet Tribe’s deputy water director and another advisory council member, said he and his colleagues understood ahead of time that the pick was ultimately the governor’s, whatever they recommended. 

“Going in we knew the governor would have the ability to choose who he wanted. I don’t think either one of them would be a bad choice,” he said. “The questions I asked were that they would be fair and uphold the law with our people. If I ever had to go before them, I’d think they’d both be fair about it.”

Appointments made while the Senate is in session must be confirmed by the Senate. Legislative resolutions to confirm gubernatorial appointees have no introduction deadline per the Legislature’s rules, so even in what is likely the session’s last month, there should still be time for the Senate to consider Bonilla’s nomination. 

Olson’s term ends Jan. 6, 2025. Bonilla would need to run for an additional six-year term starting in 2024 if he wants to keep the judgeship. 

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.