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Montanans pay $100,000 for legislative hubris and abuse of power

by By Mike Wheat
| March 26, 2024 7:00 AM

In the current political landscape, Republicans have a supermajority in both houses of the Montana Legislature. In 2021, legislative leaders hastily passed an illegal bill in the final hours of the session, disregarding constitutional provisions designed to prevent such actions.

Senate Bill 319, a minor bill on campaign finance, was referred to a free conference committee in the closing days of the legislative session to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions. 

During the meeting, without public input, the committee added amendments to the bill preventing voter registration on university campuses and requiring judges to disqualify themselves from cases where a party or their attorney had made a legal campaign contribution.

The amended bill was then rushed through the Legislature on straight party-line votes and signed into law by the governor.

The Montana Constitution serves as a check on legislative power, promoting transparency, participation and debate for both the public and legislative members. The Constitution prohibits amendments to bills that extend beyond the original subject matter and restricts multiple amendments that exceed the original title of the bill.

Despite this, the majority party jammed through Senate Bill 319 in the waning hours before adjournment.

Forward Montana, a citizens group composed of students, attorneys and other interested Montanans, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The state attorney general failed to provide a substantive defense of the bill or the legislators’ actions, essentially acknowledging its unconstitutionality.

In 2022, a district court in Helena ruled that the legislation was void because it violated the Montana Constitution’s amendment provisions.

The State did not appeal the District Court’s ruling.

Forward Montana subsequently filed an appeal to recover attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine. This doctrine allows citizens the ability to recover expenses when a lawsuit is necessary to protect the public from government actions that deny constitutionally protected rights. 

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that Forward Montana was entitled to recover their attorney fees. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the District Court to determine if the $100,000 attorney fee was reasonable.

When the legislative majority abuses its power, there is a cost. Unfortunately, in this case, the taxpayers will bear the burden of the Republican leaders’ misconduct, which will compel Montana citizens to seek relief through the courts.

Bozeman attorney Mike Wheat of Bozeman is a retired Montana Supreme Court Justice and a former state senator.