After the 2021 Montana Legislature adjourned, Democratic lawmakers quipped that bills passed by the Republican majority would produce a lot of jobs — for lawyers. Those predictions are proving to be true. A recent memo produced by legislative staff said that, as of November, state attorneys had spent over 1,800 hours defending challenges to laws passed in the 2021 session. And that doesn’t include time spent by plaintiffs’ lawyers on the challenges.
The laws in question addressed gun rights, judicial appointments, abortion access, voting rights and transgender issues. The legislative memo addressed 14 lawsuits challenging 18 laws and said the state has spent in excess of $100,000 defending the challenges. But that likely doesn’t address the true costs. The Montana Free Press (montanafreepress.org) has been tracking 28 lawsuits filed in various state and federal courts. Some have been dismissed or otherwise resolved. Many are still pending or are being appealed.
2021 marked the first time in 18 years the GOP has controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s office. The flurry of legal challenges is indicative of a pent-up desire on the part of conservatives to enact many favorite rightwing initiatives. More than 700 bills were passed into law during the session, some 100 more than the average number passed in recent sessions.
Not surprisingly, some of the lawsuits have thus far succeeded in stopping new laws — notably the law concerning guns on college campuses. Both the U.S. and Montana constitutions were designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority by putting up guardrails limiting ideological excess at the expense of the rights of minorities. Courts are finding at least some of the new laws conflict with those protections.
Legal reviews conducted by legislative attorneys warned lawmakers some of the bills in question could run into constitutional problems and invite challenges. Those warnings went unheeded and now we’re paying the price.
Given the current political realities, the balance of power in Helena is unlikely to shift much during the midterm elections next November. Given that, Republican lawmakers are urged to temper their zeal in the 2023 general session and save the courts and the taxpayers another round of expensive litigation headaches.