Gavel Grab

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 chonological 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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Judge Who Apologized Over His Remarks Sets Retirement

Last year, Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh apologized for his “stupid” and “dumb” remarks in the sentencing of a former high school teacher to 31 days in jail for the rape of a 14-year-old girl who later took her own life. Now, he has announced he will retire at year’s end.

District Judge Baugh, 72, said his retirement decision was not related to the backlash over the case, according to the Associated Press. To learn more about the controversy that enveloped Judge Baugh, see Gavel Grab.

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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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Judge to Face Ethics Complaint Over Rape Sentencing Remarks

In August, Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh apologized for his “stupid” and “dumb” remarks in the sentencing of a former high school teacher to 31 days in jail for the rape of a 14-year-old girl who later took her own life. Now some advocates are pressing for his removal and preparing to submit a complaint today to the state Judicial Standards Commission.

The complaint will allege violations of the judicial code, said Marian Bradley, president of Montana National Organization of Women, according to the Associated Press. Monroe Freedman, of Hofstra University Law School in New York, a scholar on judicial ethics, contended the judge had shown bias against the rape victim and had violated judicial ethics with his remarks at the sentencing hearing.

At the hearing, the judge described the rape victim as “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the defendant, her teacher, who was 49 at the time of the offense (see Gavel Grab). The AP said there was no comment from Judge Baugh’s office about the imminent complaint.

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Ex-Justice From Montana Sees Looming Threat to Fair Courts

The impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling will come to “dominate judicial elections” and destroy fair and impartial courts if citizens and leaders are not vigilant, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson writes in a Missoulian commentary.

Justice Nelson bases much of his column on a recent report issued by the American Constitution Society entitled “Justice at Risk.” It documented a correlation between donations by business groups to judicial campaigns and state supreme court justices voting in favor of business interests (see Gavel Grab).

“Montanans demand a judicial system that is grounded in two bedrock principles – impartiality and independence. Those principles are threatened when corporate and special-interest money drive judicial elections. The proof is found in an objective, non-partisan report: ‘Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions,’” he writes.

Moreover, Justice Nelson says the report points to “significant impact on judicial impartiality” from a flood of expenditures following Citizens United. In the opinion, a 5-4 majority  lifted key restraints on political spending by corporations and unions. Read more

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