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The Republican-controlled Montana Legislature has been unapologetic in its attempts to politicize the state’s courts. The most egregious measure they have promoted would eliminate the seven-member, bipartisan Judicial Nomination Commission that screens applicants to fill vacant state district and Supreme Court positions, and allow the governor to directly appoint those replacements.

That bill, Senate Bill 140, has been signed into law by GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte but is already being challenged by a bipartisan group of former elected officials that has petitioned the state Supreme Court to declare the measure unconstitutional.

Lawmakers are holding confirmation hearings on three district judges — appointed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and already sworn in and sitting on the bench. They include a district judge here in Gallatin County. The refusal to confirm the judges would clear the way for them to be replaced by anyone Gianforte chooses, unless SB 140 is declared unconstitutional.

When state elected leaders take office, they take an oath to defend and protect the state Constitution. That doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot these days.

The framers of the 1972 Montana Constitution clearly wanted to keep politics out of the judicial system. And with good reason. History has shown them allowing politics to be injected into the courts by allowing partisan governors to appoint them directly invited cronyism that undermined the integrity of the system and invited judges to wield their power vindictively against political opponents.

The system we have today is not perfect. Some politics always creeps into the process when governors appoint nominating commission members, when those members choose the candidates to send to the governor and when the governor chooses someone from the list of nominees he or she is handed.

But the framers sought to minimize that by setting up a system to screen candidates for their qualifications and send recommendations to the governor. Hopefully the Supreme Court will overturn SB 140 and leave the nomination commission in place.

And lawmakers need to do the right thing and vote on confirmation of the three district judges who have already been vetted by the commission and are on the job today.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly said hearings had not been scheduled for the district judges appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. The Montana Senate has scheduled hearings for all three judges. 


Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Charles Rinker, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, either leave a comment on the page below or write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.