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A bill that would abolish a judicial nomination commission and give Montana’s governor the power to unilaterally appoint interim district court and Supreme Court judges passed Thursday out of a House committee.

Senate Bill 140, which would disband the judicial nomination commission, passed out of the committee on a 12 to 7 vote. The bill moves to the House chambers for debate.

The nomination commission is made up of a district court judge, two attorneys and four members of the public — all volunteers. The body vets interim candidates for vacancies at the district court and Supreme Court level with public interviews when a sitting judge dies, retires or resigns.

Under the bill, the governor would do his own vetting of candidates, after taking public comment on the applicants. The appointed judges would then need to be confirmed by the state’s Senate chamber and would be required to run for reelection at the end of a term.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and a handful of attorneys supported the bill at the hearing. They argued that giving the governor the power to appoint interim judges would make him accountable and take politics out of the process.

Representatives from the State Bar of Montana, the Montana Defense Lawyers Association, Montana Trial Lawyers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Montana Judges Association opposed the bill, saying it’s unconstitutional and would remove transparency from the process.

The chair of the nomination commission also spoke against the bill.

Bill sponsor Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, said the commission was set up in 1973, when the internet wasn’t around to process judicial candidates.

“In committee, testimony was said that the commission should be kept because it’s tradition — tradition may work, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best way,” Regier said.

Juras, who unsuccessfully ran for a state Supreme Court seat in 2016, spoke in support of the bill on behalf of Gov. Greg Gianforte. She called the commission partisan and “much more political than elections.”

Juras said she found members made 330 campaign donations to various candidates. Of those contributions, she said, three went to Repubican candidates.

Juras said Gianforte is dedicated to appointing judges who understand the different roles of the branches of government and who will not legislate from the bench.

“We believe that the governor is absolutely capable of determining which judges should fill these vacancies,” she said.

Bruce Spencer, who represents the State Bar of Montana, said the bill is unconstitutional because the Montana Constitution prohibits “unfettered direct appointments by the governor, in the cases of judicial vacancies.” He said the bill also removes formal public oversight and input from the bench and bar.

Spencer hinted that, if the bill passed, there would likely be litigation that could take at least a year to settle, which would disrupt district court proceedings like divorces, probates and criminal law.

“All of which is going to fall on the retired judges or the judges sitting on the bench, and it’s not good at all for the system to have that delay,” Spencer said.

Gallatin County District Judge John Brown, who chairs the nomination commission, said the commission’s process is all done publicly, and often where the judge will preside over hearings. He said the commission doesn’t ask for a candidate’s party affiliation.

“Every step of the way we work, it is a transparent process,” Brown said.

Brown said the commission’s job is to ensure that it sends a list of candidates to the governor of competent and qualified people. If the Legislature abolishes the commission, he said, it would abolish the transparency and representation of the public, bar and judiciary in the process.

“I think it is a mistake to give this power to a single elected official, the governor, who is going to pick these judges in private interviews,” Brown said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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