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Montana legislative committee investigating judiciary conducts first meeting

Senate Judicial Oversight Committee
Kim Abbott
Posted at 7:36 PM, Apr 29, 2024

HELENA — On Monday, Republican state lawmakers met for a committee meeting, discussing their concerns about the role of Montana’s judicial branch – while Democratic legislators refused to participate.

Earlier this month, Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced he was creating the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Oversight and Reform, in response to a series of court rulings he said had undermined the Legislature’s authority. The committee held its first meeting Monday at the State Capitol.

“The education in the start of this, I think, is vital, for the citizens out there to understand the process, for us to understand it and for us to be effective as a committee,” Ellsworth said.



In a press release announcing the committee, Republican legislative leaders said the goal was “creating legislation for the 2025 Legislature to rein in Montana courts’ abuse of power, restoring coequal power among Montana’s three branches of government, establishing more oversight of the judiciary, strengthening legislative rules and procedures, and improving court processes on important constitutional cases.”

The creation of the committee followed decisions like a district court judge ordering a veto override poll for Senate Bill 442 and the Montana Supreme Court finding that the way the Legislature handled a bill later ruled unconstitutional showed they acted in bad faith.

Senate Judicial Oversight Committee
Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced he was creating the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Oversight and Reform, in response to a series of court rulings he said had undermined the Legislature’s authority. The committee held its first meeting Apr. 29 at the Montana State Capitol.

Ellsworth said Monday’s meeting was mostly informational. For much of the day, lawmakers heard from Jim Ramlow, an attorney from Whitefish and one of three public members of the committee. He presented his view on the Montana and U.S. Constitutions, their frameworks for separation of powers and how these types of cases have been handled in the past.

“Is a court that declares legislation in Montana unconstitutional overstepping its powers? Is a legislature which is discussing reform of the judiciary overstepping those powers?” Ramlow asked. “Those are serious underlying questions in a theory of government, and I'm sure that the committee will be discussing these in some detail.”

Jim Ramlow
Jim Ramlow, an attorney from Whitefish and one of three public members of the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Oversight and Reform, presented his view on the Montana and U.S. Constitutions and their frameworks for separation of powers.

Ellsworth told MTN they would move on to discussing more specific topics in future meetings, likely including some specific cases. He said there’s no timeline yet for when the committee might complete a report.

The committee is set to make its recommendations without input from the legislative minority, as Democratic leaders made clear Monday they do not intend to be involved with the committee, which they called a “political stunt” and part of a pattern of attacks on the judiciary.

Ellsworth appointed ten Republican senators, including himself, and five Democrats as members, plus three Republican House members and three public members in non-voting capacities. None of the Democratic senators attended Monday. Ellsworth said he offered to name three Democratic representatives as non-voting members, but House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott declined.

“I'm highly disappointed in the Democrats for not showing up to this meeting,” Ellsworth said as he opened the committee. “This is an important meeting. We have a responsibility to the citizens of Montana. And this is not about party politics at all – in any way, shape or form. They should be here representing their constituents, their fellow Montanans that voted them in.”

Kim Abbott
Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott and Sen. Ryan Lynch, made clear Apr. 29 they do not intend to be involved with the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Oversight and Reform, which they called a “political stunt” and part of a pattern of attacks on the judiciary.

Abbott and Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, explained their decision not to participate Monday at the Capitol.

Democrats did take part in a select committee on the judiciary that worked from 2021 to 2022, producing their own “minority report” when they disagreed with the Republicans’ findings. Abbott, one of the members of that committee, said that was already a frustrating experience, but she felt this situation was more unsatisfactory because of the framework the new committee is operating under.

“This time around, between the language that the president used when establishing the committee and the fact that we've done this before and it's just a cycle of attacking an independent branch, we chose not to participate,” Abbott said Monday.