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Judicial appointment process begins

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MONTANA — When Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath notified Gov. Greg Gianforte March 7 of Judge Jim Manley’s pending retirement, the announcement set in motion a relatively new process for judicial appointments. 

In 2021, the legislature passed, and the governor signed into law SB 140, which changed the process for filling midterm district court vacancies. 

For the past 50 years, since the Constitutional Convention in 1972, vacancies on the bench were filled by the governor from a list of candidates vetted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. The seven-member group was comprised of four non-judicial/non-attorney members representing various geographical areas and appointed by the governor, two attorneys appointed by the Supreme Court, and one district judge elected by other district judges. Each served four-year terms.

The new law allows the governor to appoint judges directly from qualified judicial candidates who submit a resume and three letters of recommendation. To date, three vacancies have been filled with the new process.

Though not required by law, the governor has so far appointed advisory councils, comprised of accomplished local attorneys and long-time community leaders, to assist in reviewing and recommending candidates to fill a judicial vacancy. 

Polson attorney and former Republican Speaker of the House John Mercer affirmed last week that he’s been asked to chair the council that will advise the governor on Manley’s replacement. He anticipates the committee will include from 10 to 12 members. 

According to Jack O’Brien, the governor’s deputy press secretary, the full roster will be released this week. 

O’Brien writes that the council is charged with “identifying well-qualified attorneys who are committed to the fair, consistent, and objective application of the law and who will interpret laws, not make them from the bench.” Members will review applications and consider public comment, including letters of support and nominees’ statements, before making their recommendations. 

 “At its core, the process relies on public engagement and public input,” says O’Brien. 

The governor is accepting applications from, and nominations of, qualified lawyers through 5 p.m. Monday, April 11, for the 20th Judicial District, which serves Lake and Sanders counties. The application form is available electronically at 

From Tuesday, April 12, through Wednesday, May 11, the public may provide letters of support or other comments regarding applicants by emailing Applicants must receive at least three letters of support to be considered for appointment.

The governor plans to select Manley’s replacement by June 10. The seat will appear on the ballot in 2024, and again in 2026 at the expiration of the six-year term. 

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