The Montana Legislature appealed a Montana Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, pointing to 14th Amendment due process violations in a high- profile case between the state’s legislative and judicial branches of government.
The appeal to federal court centers on the fundamental principle of due process that “no person can be the judge of their own case.” The appeal was filed by the Montana Department of Justice, which represents the Legislature in the case.
“This case has had many unusual twists and turns and fiery statements, but one fundamental fact remains: you can’t be the judge in your own case. That simple principle underpins our free society and the rule of law,” said Senator Greg Hertz, R-Polson. Hertz chairs the Legislature’s Special Select Committee on Judicial Accountability and Transparency.
The case began when Legislature discovered this spring that the Montana Supreme Court’s administrator, the chief justice, and some district court judges had been extensively polling and lobbying against pending legislation that was likely to end up in court. One judge had to recuse himself from a case after emails revealed he had told every judge in the state that he adamantly opposed the legislation in question. The Legislature launched an investigation and issued multiple subpoenas in an attempt to recover emails that the court administrator admitted had been deleted.
In a flurry of court activity over the following few months, Montana Supreme Court justices made a series unusual and unprecedented procedural moves as they quashed the subpoenas issued to their own employee and even to themselves. The Montana Supreme Court, in a series of openly angry rulings, rejected the Legislature’s repeated offers for negotiation as the justices ruled in their own favor.
The Legislature’s federal appeal asks the U.S. Supreme Court to reaffirm longstanding due process principles critical to the independence and integrity of the judicial system, including that no person may be the judge of their own case and that every party in court has the right to a fair and impartial hearing.
“It’s essential to all Montanans that we have independent, impartial courts that conduct fair hearings, follow due process, and abide by strong ethical and procedural standards. Our democratic republic depends on that. Throughout this entire situation, the Legislature’s goal has been to strengthen the integrity of Montana’s courts and address any shortcomings in our judicial system,” Hertz said.
“Regardless of the outcome of this appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Legislature is committed to resolving the issues that have come to light,” Hertz continued. “I hope we can have productive conversations with the judicial branch moving forward and enact reforms to ensure this type of situation never happens again.”