Montana judge strikes down ballot referral that could have changed how Supreme Court Justices are elected

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 11:22 AM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 18:57:28-04

HELENA — A Bozeman district judge has struck down a legislative ballot referral that would have let voters decide if Montana Supreme Court justices should be elected by districts, rather than a statewide election.

Judge Peter Ohman cited Reichert v. State heavily in his order, where the Montana Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of a legislative referendum proposing changes to the qualification and selection of Montana Supreme Court justices.

Specifically, Ohman notes that Reichert set that “election of Supreme Court justices by districts was unconstitutional” and the manor for changing how justices are elected should be through a constitutional amendment, not a ballot referendum. A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds of the entire legislature to get on the ballot, rather than a simple majority for a ballot referral.

Since Montana became a state in 1889, State Supreme Court Justices have been elected through statewide contests.

House Bill 325was passed by the 2021 Legislature at the same time GOP leadership was challenging the neutrality of the judiciary. Proponents of the legislation said moving to districts would help ensure the justices held political preferences more similar to the state’s electorate. Opponents likened the measure to political gerrymandering.

A group of Montana voters, advocates and former elected officials filed a legal challenge against HB 325 last May.

Secretary of State Communications Director Richie Melby told MTN their office received a copy of the court's order and will be reviewing and evaluating the decision.

Read the full order below.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the Secretary of State's Office.