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Ex-Justice Warns: Don’t Put Montana Judges on ‘Auction Block’

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

“Montana’s judiciary must not be forced onto the auction block,” retired state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson writes in an outspoken Montana Standard op-ed. Signing the opinion with him were retired Justices Terry Trieweiler, Jim Regnier, Bill Leaphart, Bill Hunt and John (Skeff) Sheehy.

Tracing special interest and partisan spending in recent supreme court elections held in other states, and the pouring of “dark money” into judicial elections in the wake of Citizens United, Justice Nelson says the same trends could affect Montana judicial elections and have a frightening impact.

“No Montanan wants to litigate in a court where the fix is in because the judge or justice is beholden to those who spent him or her onto the bench,” he writes. “Montanans deserve fair, impartial, independent and non-partisan judges and justices elected by Montana voters—not political hacks, bought and paid for by out of state dark money. Our civil justice system is at stake.” Read more

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Censured Montana Judge Challenges His Punishment

District Judge G. Todd Baugh of Montana, facing censure and a 31-day suspension from the state Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab) after he said a 14-year-old rape victim seemed “older than her chronological age,” says he is receiving an unprecedented punishment.

The justices took the unprecedented action of ordering his suspension when the Montana Judicial Standards Commission had not recommended it, Judge Baugh said in documents submitted to the high court, according to Reuters.

“Thus, I think, the imposition of suspension which was not recommended by the commission is unwarranted,” Judge Baugh wrote. “I will not object to you withdrawing the suspension.”

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Censure Ordered for Montana Trial Court Judge

The Montana Supreme Court ordered public censure and a 31-day suspension for a trial judge who said a 14-year-old rape victim seemed “older than her chronological age.”

District Judge G. Todd Baugh has “eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety, therefore violating the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct,” the high court said, according to News. You can learn background about the case from Gavel Grab.

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Four Advance in Montana Supreme Court Races

Two incumbent Montana Supreme Court justices are among candidates who will be on the general election ballot in November, following primary contests this week.

Justices Jim Rice and Mike Wheat were opposed by single challengers, W. David Herbert and former state Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke, respectively. According to the Associated Press, the names of all four will appear on the November ballot because the top two recipients of votes in each primary race advance.

A legal challenge is facing VanDyke’s eligibility to run for the high court.

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New Sentencing is Ordered in Rape Case From Montana

The Montana Supreme Court invalidated a trial judge’s controversial sentence of a month in prison for the convicted rapist of a 14-year-old girl, saying the judge’s “statements reflected an improper basis for his decision and cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice.”

In 2013, District Judge G. Todd Baugh handed the sentence to a former high school teacher. “It was a troubled youth,” the judge said of the victim, “but a youth who was probably as much in control of the situation as the defendant, one that was seemingly, although troubled, older than her chronological age.” The victim later took her own life.

According to the Billings Gazette, the state Supreme Court said, “The idea that (the victim) could have ‘control’ of the situation is directly at odds with the law, which holds that a youth is incapable of consent and, therefore, lacks control over the situation whatsoever.” Read more

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Two High Court Incumbents Face Challengers in Montana

Two seats on the Montana Supreme Court will be contested this year, according to news reports that followed a Monday candidate filing deadline.

Incumbent Justice Jim Rice is seeking re-election and will face a challenge from attorney W. David Herbert. The challenger earlier ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from Wyoming as a Libertarian candidate. Justice Rice is a former Republican state representative.

Incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, also seeking re-election, will be challenged by Lawrence VanDyke, the Montana solicitor general. Justice Wheat is a former Democratic state senator. VanDyke was appointed to his current post by Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican. Read more

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Punishment Weighed for Montana Judge after Rape Ruling

A Montana judge, whose light sentence for the convicted rapist of a 14-year-old girl sparked outrage, could face punishment ranging from censure to ouster, according to a Reuters report.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh was found guilty of judicial misconduct by the Montana Judicial Standards Commission, which noted that the judge ”justified the unlawful sentence by blaming the child victim.”  In 2013, the judge sentenced a former high school teacher to just 30 days in prison for raping the teenager, whom Baugh described as “older than her chronological age” (see Gavel Grab).  The victim later took her own life.

The Judicial Standards Commission now must decide whether to discipline Baugh itself or turn the case over to the state Supreme Court to decide punitive action.  The commission noted in a complaint filed with the court that Baugh had undermined public confidence in the judiciary.  Baugh has already said he will not run for reelection.


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Screening Panel Weighs High Court Applicants in Montana

The Judicial Nomination Commission has invited applications from attorneys interested in succeeding former Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris, who recently was confirmed to the federal bench.

The application period closes Feb. 12, and after that, the public will have 30 days to comment on the applicants. Then the screening commission must make recommendations in a month to Gov. Steve Bullock for appointment, according to the Associated Press. The panel recommends three to five candidates.

Meanwhile a different Associated Press article reported that state Supreme Court Justice Brian Rice, filing to seek a third eight-year term, voiced his support for choosing judges by elections and said they make judges accountable.

When retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visited the state in 2010, she advocated for switching to an appointive system for selecting judges and said an initial judicial appointment would be followed by a retention (yes-or-no) election in that system, thereby assuring accountability. Last year Justice O’Connor joined Justice at Stake as its First Honorary Chair.

The appointive process to fill ex-Justice Morris’ seat is one that Montana uses for filling unexpired judicial terms.

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How Next Montana Supreme Court Justice Will be Picked

Because a Montana Supreme Court justice, Brian Morris, was confirmed on Thursday by the Senate for a federal district court judgeship, a merit selection process used to fill judicial vacancies will be geared up to help pick his successor on the state’s highest court.

An explanatory article in the Missoulian described the procedures to be used in filling both the vacancy created by Morris’ getting a federal district judgeship and also state District Judge Susan Watters’ winning confirmation for a federal district judgeship (see Gavel Grab).

The Judicial Nominating Commission recommends three to five candidates, and the governor picks one of them to fill a vacancy. The governor’s appointment is subject to Montana Senate confirmation. 

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From Montana: Editorial Urges Senate Action on Judges

A Billings Gazette editorial, reflecting on obstructionist politics that have delayed confirmation of two non-controversial judges for the federal trial bench in Montana, expresses hope that a recent U.S. Senate rules change will lead to confirmation of the pair.

Two of Montana’s three federal trial court seats are vacant, and they are deemed “judicial emergencies,” the editorial says, adding, “With too few judges, justice is delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The nominees are Yellowstone County District Court Judge Susan Watters and Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris.  ”It is time for the Senate to do its job: Allow the president to fulfill his constitutional duty to appoint U.S. judges so the judicial branch can do its job,” the editorial adds.

The Senate voted to change its rules and eliminate filibusters of cabinet nominees and federal judges other than Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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