Montana Hall File, MSU File

The last sun hits Montana Hall on the Montana State University campus April 2.

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A coalition of higher education leaders, university employees and students have filed a lawsuit against recent legislation they say is unconstitutional in Gallatin County’s district court.

The group filed its lawsuit in Montana’s 18th District Court Thursday morning, arguing that four laws passed by the Montana Legislature this session infringed on the constitutional authority of the Board of Regents to set policy for the Montana University System.

The Montana Supreme Court dismissed the group’s suit last week without prejudice, saying the plaintiffs could seek recourse in district court.

“I just think it’s so important that this is done for the sake of safety,” said Jim Goetz, a Bozeman-based attorney representing members of the coalition.

Goetz said the decision was made to file in Gallatin County because a significant number of the plaintiffs reside in the county and a majority of the recent constitutional challenges have been filed in Helena’s district court.

“They may be getting overwhelmed there so we decided to file this one in Gallatin County,” he said.

The Montana Supreme Court also dismissed a separate lawsuit filed by the Board of Regents against HB 102. The plaintiffs refiled the legal challenge May 27 in the 1st Judicial District Court in Lewis and Clark County.

The regents won a temporary injunction last week staying the June 1 implementation of the firearm carry policy, a provision of HB 102.

The suit brought by the coalition accuses the Legislature of overreach in passing House bills 102, 112 and 349 and Senate Bill 319.

HB 102 in part allows gun carry on campuses, voiding the Board of Regents current policy. HB 112 bans transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. HB 349 creates new guidelines for anti-harassment and free speech policies on campus. SB 319 restricts organizations from registering students to vote in dorms and dining facilities.

The complaint also challenges a provision of HB 2, the appropriations law, which voids a $1 million earmark for campus safety if the Montana University System challenges HB 102.

The lawsuit says the Board of Regents, as the governing body of the university system, already has policies that address the topics covered in the four bills.

“The passage of these bills threatens an imminent disruption to the operation of campuses in the MUS system,” the suit says.

The lawsuit names Gov. Greg Gianforte, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and the state of Montana as defendants.

A spokesperson for Gianforte said the governor’s office generally does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In an emailed statement, Knudsen’s press secretary Emilee Cantrell said, “Montanans overwhelmingly rejected the Democrats’ extremist agenda in November, so they’re adopting the national playbook used against Trump: filing as many lawsuits as they can in front of left-wing judges.”

The defendants have 42 days to file their answer to the complaint, Goetz said.

The plaintiffs include ex-regents, a previous commissioner of higher education, Montana State University’s Faculty Senate, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, university student groups, individual university faculty members, individual students and a delegate in the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention.

One of the plaintiffs, Steve Barrett, is a former regent who was appointed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2005. He served until 2012, including two years as board chair.

Barrett said in an interview Thursday that during his tenure as regent, multiple organizations asked the board to allow guns on campus but were denied.

“The constitution went to great lengths to set the university system apart form politics and political interests,” Barrett said. “That’s exactly what’s at play here.”

Barrett said it’s important to keep the Legislature, which might have a political bent in either direction, from manipulating the university system.

“HB 102 is the most politically sensitive but not the most important one,” he said.

It is important to draw a line with all four of the laws and say the Legislature encroached on the constitutional responsibility of the Board of Regents, Barrett said.

With such a wide range of plaintiffs, Barrett said it was important to “show that this is something that affects everyone … that these policies touch every area of the state.”

The coalition isn’t the only group challenging SB 319. On Tuesday, the advocacy nonprofit Forward Montana and the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed a suit in the Lewis and Clark County District Court claiming the last-minute amendments to the bill make it unconstitutional.

The suit argues the changes silence the voices of college students and would remove Montana judges from hundreds of pending cases.

In a statement, Forward Montana Executive Director Kiersten Iwai said the state Constitution prevents last minute amendments.

“The results of this quick lawmaking should be a concern to all Montanans,” she said. “It’s an assault against our democracy and must be challenged in court.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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