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AG Knudsen appeals case about Supreme Court, asks all justices to recuse themselves

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AG Knudsen appeals case about Supreme Court, asks all justices to recuse themselves

May 05, 2022 | 7:22 pm ET
By Daily Montanan Staff
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AG Knudsen appeals ruling in SupCo-by-district ballot referral lawsuit
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The Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena which houses the Attorney General's Office, the Montana Supreme Court and the state law library (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen appealed a Bozeman judge’s ruling that stops voters from being able to choose how they elect state Supreme Court justices, his office announced Thursday in a news release.

In a filing with the Montana Supreme Court, Knudsen also called on current Supreme Court justices to disqualify themselves from the case because each “has a significant personal interest in how and where they must campaign to keep their jobs.”

Sponsored by Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, House Bill 325 would place a referendum on the November ballot allowing voters to choose if Montana should elect Supreme Court justices by district instead of statewide, as is currently done. If approved by voters, the state would be divided into seven Supreme Court districts and require candidates to run within one of them. It would not require candidates to run in the district where they live.

A Bozeman judge decided in March that the legislative referendum would conflict with the 2012 Supreme Court’s Reichert ruling, but the Attorney General disagreed. In the news release, Knudsen said “the substance of the order in McDonald v. Jacobsen will be addressed when the appellate brief is filed in the coming weeks.”

“Voters deserve the opportunity to decide for themselves how Supreme Court justices are elected. Judges should not deprive Montanans of that opportunity,” Knudsen said in a statement.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Jim Goetz and Cliff Edwards earlier said the following in one filing: “Montana’s practice of at-large elections for Supreme Court justices is a constitutional requirement.”

Knudsen also filed a motion to disqualify the current Supreme Court justices from the case, arguing each has a substantial interest in how and where they seek re-election.

“Montana’s constitutional system rests on the bedrock assumption of ‘an independent, fair, and impartial judiciary’ which can only be preserved through ‘the appearance of judicial propriety and independence,’” the motion reads. “Montana law, therefore, requires judges and justices to disqualify themselves when they have an interest in the outcome of a case. Each justice of this Court holds a clear, direct, and personal interest in the outcome of this case.”

The news release provided a link here with the motion to disqualify and one here with the notice of appeal.