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Montana, independent courts, Montanans’ rights under attack

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Our state and the way of life we have enjoyed for decades is in danger of being lost. With a new governor and new legislature in session, it is vital Montana citizens are aware of the harmful actions occurring right now in Helena: politicizing our courts, substantially remaking state government, diminishing Montanan’s rights and consolidating power in the Governor’s office.

Even though no problem exists with the current process, the Governor and some Republican legislators are seeking to eliminate the judicial nomination process that has existed since Montana’s Constitution was enacted in the 1970s. Montana used to allow a governor to directly appoint judges, but the Constitutional Convention wisely changed that because of the problem of political bias. Currently, a nominating committee vets candidates, reviews qualifications, and provides a list of the top three nominees from whom the Governor selects the finalist. SB140, by Sen. Keith Regier, abolishes the nomination committee and assigns all court-nominating power back to the Governor, allowing him to handpick whomever he wants with no independent check on qualifications.

HB325, by Rep. Barry Usher, is another attack on courts and Montanans’ voting rights. Montanans currently elect all seven Supreme Court justices. This makes sense since the justices represent all Montanans. Radical Republicans want to change the nomination process so Montanans no longer vote on all seven justices but limit it so Montanans only vote on one justice. This changes a process existing since Montana was founded in the late 1800s and politicizes the judicial process, making it about partisan politics instead of justice. 

Multiple attacks are occurring in an unprecedented war on women, especially survivors of incest and sexual assault. They are expanding the reach of government into Montanans’ private affairs, supporting multiple bills that deny women their constitutionally-protected right to reproductive healthcare through HB136 (Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway), HB140 (Rep. Amy Regier), HB167 (Rep. Matt Regier), HB171 (Rep. Sharon Greef) and HB229 (Rep. Jane Gillette).

They are making it harder to register and exercise your right to vote by removing same-day voter registration, requiring voters to be registered by noon the Monday before elections. HB176 by Rep. Sharon Greef enforces this even when the government makes an error on your registration - through no fault of your own, you will not be permitted to exercise your right to vote.   

They want to make public health decisions more politicized by having local elected officials make public health decisions instead of public health agencies. Sen. Doug Kary’s SB108 does this regardless of the elected officials’ experience or knowledge of public health. 

They have ignored public safety and greatly expanded who can carry weapons without a permit and where they can be carried, including school campuses, bars, and banks. HB102 by Rep. Seth Berglee does not allow local communities to determine what they want for safety. Despite the fact this bill was noted to be unconstitutional, it passed and is being sent to the Governor to sign, even though it blatantly violates Montana’s Constitution. 

Republican legislators are creating more political positions for the Governor to appoint, removing the ability of a department director to select their own deputy director based on merit. SB139 by Sen. Mike Cuffe allows the Governor to remove state employees when he takes office and replace them with a political appointee instead of someone a department director hires based on knowledge and qualifications. 

Although claiming to be a fiscal conservative, the Governor greatly increased the salaries of department heads by up to 46 percent on top of existing six-figure salaries, paid by Montanan’s taxes. No other public or private employees were granted this magnitude of a salary increase.

At the same time of these substantial raises, the Republican-led legislature is advancing a bill making it harder for working Montanans, including teachers, nurses, law enforcement officers, and firefighters, to come together and demand fair work conditions and fair pay through HB168 (Rep. Bill Mercer), HB251 (Rep. Caleb Hinkle), and SB89 (Sen. Keith Regier). 

Tell your legislator and governor what you think about these changes. Send your legislator a message at https://leg.mt.gov/web-messaging/. Tell Governor Gianforte what you think at 406-444-3111. Your voice matters. These people are elected to represent you. 

Kimberly Dudik is the CEO and co-founder of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of the Rockies and a former state legislator (2012-2020) with fiscal, public safety and civil rights expertise.

 

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