Montana Supreme Court

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Montana Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   7
Founded:   1864
Location:   Helena, Montana
Chief:  $126,000
Associates:  $125,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Non-partisan election of judges
Term:   8 years
Active justices

Mike McGrath  •  Patricia O'Brien Cotter  •  James Rice  •  Michael E. Wheat  •  Laurie McKinnon  •  Jim Shea  •  Beth Baker  •  

Seal of Montana.png

The Montana Supreme Court is the highest court in Montana. It meets in the Justice Building in Helena, the state's capital.[1]


Justices of the Montana Supreme Court

The Montana Supreme Court presently consists of a chief justice and six associate justices.[2][3] Justices are elected. In the case of a mid-term vacancy, the Governor may appoint an interim justice, who must run in the election following their appointment, if they wish to retain their seat.[4]

The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Chief Justice Mike McGrath2009-2016
Justice Patricia O'Brien Cotter2001-2016
Justice James Rice2001-2014Gov. Judy Martz
Justice Michael E. Wheat2010-2014Gov. Brian Schweitzer
Justice Laurie McKinnon2013-2020
Justice Jim Shea2014-2016Gov. Steve Bullock
Justice Beth Baker2011-2019


The Montana Supreme Court only has original jurisdiction over extraordinary writs, which include habeas corpus, injunction, review, mandate, quo warranto and supervisory control. This jurisdiction is concurrent with the state's district courts.[5]

Judicial selection

See also: Judicial selection in Montana

Montana Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms following a general election. If a vacancy occurs mid-term, the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission submits the names of three to five nominees to the governor. The Governor selects one nominee to appoint to the vacant position. If the Governor fails to do so within thirty days, the Chief Justice makes the selection. The appointment must be confirmed by the state senate; if the senate is not in session, the recess appointee serves until the next session. After having been appointed, the justice must run in the next general election to retain the seat for the remainder of the term.[6] Thereafter, a justice serves for terms of eight years, subject to challenge by opponent. Any incumbent judge who is running unopposed in a general election will be subject to a retention election.[6]

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Montana was given a Campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Montana received a score of -0.87. Based on the justices selected, Montana was the 6th most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[7]


A qualified candidate for the Montana Supreme Court must be a citizen of the United States, and a resident of the state for no less than two years. Candidates must also be admitted to practice law in the state for not less than five years and must reside in Montana during their term.[8]

Removal of justices

The Montana State Legislature has the power to impeach or remove a sitting state judge. A complaint may also be filed about a judge with the Montana Judicial Standards Commission who will investigate the matter. The commission will make a recommendation to the Montana Supreme Court for further action, if warranted.

The Montana Judicial Standards Commission is made up of a chair, who is elected by the district judges, a vice-chair, who is appointed by the supreme court and three other members. Two members are appointed by the Governor and one member is elected by the district judges. The members of the commission serve terms of four years.

Of the five members, two must be district judges from different judicial districts. One member must be an attorney who has practiced law in Montana for at least 10 years. The other two members must be state residents, from different congressional districts, who are not, and never have been, judges or attorneys.


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2013 666 848
2012 621 702
2011 581 732
2010 572 629
2009 688 861
2008 506 783
2007 600 713



Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Montana earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[10]

History of the court

In 1864, the United States Congress granted Montana as a territory. With this Organic Act, the Territorial Supreme Court was created with one Chief Justice and two Associate Justices. The court's members for the territory were chosen by President Lincoln in the same year.[11] The territory was divided into three judicial districts, one district for each justice. In 1886, a fourth justice was added to the court. The last session of the Territorial Supreme Court was on October 5, 1889, as Montana was brought into the Union as a state on November 8 of the same year.

The 1889 Montana Constitution created the Supreme Court of the state in Article VIII. The three members were to be elected to six-year terms in partisan elections. This remained the case until 1909 when the state legislature created the "Nonpartisan Judiciary Act." Rather than running in partisan elections, this act required that candidates to the court be "nominated by citizen petition"--this resulted in a very low voter turnout in the next general election in 1910. As a result, the law was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1911, as "it failed to provide any means for nominating candidates to newly created judgeships."[12] The concept of nonpartisan elections was reintroduced as law in 1935; the legislature "prohibited political parties from endorsing, contributing to, or making expenditures in support of or opposition to judicial candidates." The number on the court increased over time; in 1919, the court increased from three justices to five, and in 1979, the court was increased again by two to a total of seven justices. Additionally, in a 1972 amendment to the state constitution, the term of office was increased by two years to eight.

Chief Justice

As administrative head of the court, the Chief Justice presides over the court during hearings, and is considered the representative of the court at official state functions. The position of Chief Justice is determined with the general election. After then-Chief Justice Karla Gray announced her retirement in April 2007, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath ran for the seat against Ron Waterman in November 2008. McGrath defeated Waterman and is the current Chief Justice of the court. See Montana Supreme Court elections for more details.[13]

The table below represents the history of chief justices in the Montana Supreme Court.

Name Elected/Appointed Appointing Governor Length of term Brief commentary on term
Henry Blake 1889 - 1889 - 1893 First Chief Justice of Montana Supreme Court; previously Associate Justice of Territorial Supreme Court (1875 - 1885); Chief Justice of Territorial Supreme Court (1889)
William Pemberton 1893 - 1893 - 1899
Theodore Brantly 1899 - 1899 - 1922 Died in office; longest serving Chief Justice to date (23 years)
Llewellyn Callaway 1922 Appointed by Joseph M. Dixon 1922 - 1935
Walter Sands 1935 - 1935 - 1938 Died in office
O. P. Goddard 1938 Appointed by Roy E. Ayers 1938 - 1939
Howard Johnson 1939 - 1939 - 1946 Resigned
Carl Lindquist 1946 Appointed by Sam C. Ford 1946
Hugh Adair 1947 - 1947 - 1956 Also served as Associate Justice (1943-1946, 1957-1968)
James Harrison 1957 Appointed by J. Hugo Aronson 1957 - 1977
Paul Hatfield 1977 - 1977 - 1978
Frank Haswell 1978 Appointed by Thomas Lee Judge 1978 - 1985
Jean Turnage 1985 - 1985 - 2000

Supervision of the courts

As enumerated in the Montana Constitution, the court has administrative authority over the court system. Additionally, it regulates judicial groups.[14]

Boards and commissions

To assist in the supervisory role, the court appoints members to 20 boards and commissions. The list of these is below.

  • Advisory Commission on Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure
  • Board of Bar Examiners
  • Civil Jury Instructions Guidelines Commission
  • Commission of Continuing Legal Education
  • Commission on Character and Fitness
  • Commission on the Code of Judicial Conduct
  • Commission on Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
  • Commission on Practice
  • Commission on Rules of Evidence
  • Commission on Self-Represented Litigants
  • Commission on Technology
  • Commission on Unauthorized Practice
  • Criminal Jury Instructions Commission
  • District Court Council
  • Equal Justice Task Force
  • Gender Fairness Commission
  • Judicial Nomination Commission
  • Judicial Standards Commission
  • Sentence Review Division
  • Uniform District Court Rules Commission


Appeals from inferior courts

Appeals to the Montana Supreme Court are "appeals of right," meaning that the court does not have discretion as to whether it accepts review of the lower court's decision. Appeals are taken from both civil and criminal matters by a party filing a notice of appeal in the District Court that issued the order or judgment from which the appeal is sought.[15] Contempt orders are not appealable, and so can only be reviewed on application for a writ of review.[16] Criminal defendants may appeal only from final judgments of convictions, and other orders after judgment that affect substantive rights.[17] On review of criminal matters, the Montana Supreme Court may reverse, affirm, or modify the lower court's judgment; set aside, affirm, or modify any proceedings subsequent to the judgment from which the appeal is taken; reduce the offense of which the defendant was convicted to a lesser included offense; reduce the punishment imposed by the lower court; or order a new trial.[18]

Applications for original writs

Applications for original writs are filed directly with the Montana Supreme Court. The court may then order that a summary response from opposing parties be filed immediately, or may dismiss the application at its next conference without such an order. If a summary response is ordered, the court considers the filings at its next conference. The court will subsequently dismiss the application, accept jurisdiction, order more extensive briefing on any issue raised in the application or response, order oral argument in extraordinary cases, or issue any other writ or order deemed appropriate in the circumstances. Pending its disposition of the application for the writ, the court may stay a lower court's proceedings, on motion by a party for good cause shown, or sua sponte. Individual justices may issue writs of habeas corpus on behalf of anyone held in custody for return to themselves, the full Supreme Court, or the District Courts. Individual justices may also issue writs of certiorari to review judgments of contempt.

Conference and argument

The Montana Supreme Court has promulgated Internal Operating Rules for its internal governance. The justices meet in conference twice a week to discuss pending matters. Its Tuesday conferences considers pending petitions for original jurisdiction, and matters that should be considered by the full court. Its Thursday conferences consider proposed opinions, petitions for rehearing, and appeal classifications. The court’s annual calendar was previously divided into four terms, but legislation effective January 6, 2006 changed this to one term, beginning on January 1 of each year. The Chief Justice may also call a special term at any time. Oral arguments are held before the court every month of the year except July and August.[19] A majority of the court is required for quorum, and a majority of the court must concur in all decisions.[20] If a justice is disqualified or otherwise unable to participate in a case, a District Court judge is substituted, and their opinion is given the same weight in that case as a sitting justice.[21]

Written decisions

By statute, all decisions of the Montana Supreme Court must be in writing, and must set forth the grounds of the decision.[22] However, it is up to the court to decide whether an unelaborated order or a full opinion is appropriate. Chief Justice Gray has expressed her preference for unelaborated orders: "In the face of our increasing workload, and the fact that we are primarily an ‘appeal of right’ Court, it strikes me as inherently very unfair to our appellate litigants when we unnecessarily divert our efforts from their appeals to the extent we do here or in other similar matters by issuing a full opinion."[23] If a full opinion is to be issued, its drafting is assigned to a justice during conference. The court attempts to hand down its decision within 120 days of when the case is submitted. All justices must indicate their concurrence in the opinion by signing it, and all justices disagreeing with the majority's decision must indicate this in a written dissent.[24]

Citations and case reporters

Opinions of the Montana Supreme Court are assigned a "public domain" or "neutral-format" case citation, which consists of the year of decision, the state’s postal abbreviation, and finally a sequential number; the court’s sixth decision handed down during 2006, for example, would have the citation 2006 MT 6. The Montana Reports, published by State Reporter Publishing Company, is the official case reporter of Montana Supreme Court opinions. Its opinions are also included in the regional Pacific Reporter published by West Group. When citing to its previous decisions, the Montana Supreme Court cites to both print reporters as well as the neutral-format citation.

See also

External links


  1. Montana Courts, "Contact Us," accessed March 21, 2014
  2. Montana Code § 3-2-101.
  3. Montana Courts, "Judicial Branch," accessed March 21, 2014
  4. Judicial selection in Montana
  5. Montana Judicial Branch, "About Us," accessed on July 15, 2014
  6. 6.0 6.1 Article VII, Montana Constitution#Section 8
  7. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  8. Mont. Code, § 3-2-102.
  9. Montana's Official State Website, "State of Montana Clerk of the Supreme Court: Case Load Statistics"
  10. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  11. The act was formally titled "An Act to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Montana." See full text (dead link)' (.pdf).
  12. State v. O'Leary, 115 Pacific Reporter 204 (Mont. 1911).
  13. Mt,"First female chief justice of Montana Supreme Court retires," December 30, 2008
  14. Mont. Code § 3-1-702.
  15. Mont. Code Ch. 21, Rule 4.
  16. Mont. Code § 3-1-523.
  17. Mont. Code § 46-20-104.
  18. Mont. Code § 46-20-703.
  19. Mont. Code Ch. 21, Rule 24.
  20. Mont. Code § 3-2-302.
  21. Mont. Const. Art. VII § 3(2).
  22. Mont. Code § 3-2-601.
  23. Inter-Fluve v. Mont. Eighteenth Judicial Dist. Court, 112 Pacific Reporter 258, 265 (Mont. 2005) (Gray, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)
  24. Mont. Code § 3-2-601.


See also: Montana Supreme Court elections, 2014
See also: Montana judicial elections, 2014
Seat 1
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
RiceJames RiceApprovedAYes76.2%ApprovedA78%   ApprovedA
HerbertW. David Herbert No23.5%ApprovedA22%   DefeatedD
Seat 2
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
WheatMichael E. WheatApprovedAYes61.5%ApprovedA59%   ApprovedA
VanDykeLawrence VanDyke No38.2%ApprovedA41%   DefeatedD


See also: Montana judicial elections, 2012
CandidateIncumbencyDepartmentPrimary VoteElection Vote
MorrisBrian Morris   ApprovedAYes72.29%ApprovedAExpression error: Unexpected > operator.   ApprovedA
SheehyEd Sheehy    NoNumber 534.20%ApprovedA43.88%   DefeatedD
BestElizabeth Best    NoNumber 532% 
McKinnonLaurie McKinnon   ApprovedANoNumber 533.49%ApprovedA56.11%   ApprovedA


See also: 2010 State Supreme Court elections

Beth Baker and Nels Swandal competed to fill the seat vacated by William Leaphart. Beth Baker succeeded in her bid.

Montana Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Beth Baker BallotCheckMark.png n/a 52%
Nels Swandal n/a 48%

Incumbent Michael E. Wheat ran uncontested and was re-elected.

Montana Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Michael E. Wheat BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a'%'


See also: State Supreme Court elections, 2008

Mike McGrath and Ron Waterman competed to fill the seat left vacant by chief judge Karla M. Gray. McGrath succeeded in his bid.

Montana Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Mike McGrath BallotCheckMark.png n/a 75%
Ron Waterman n/a 25%

Incumbent Patricia O'Brien Cotter ran uncontested and was re-elected.

Montana Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Patricia O'Brien Cotter BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a

Portions of this article have been taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Copyright Notice can be found here.

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