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Montana Supreme Court declares 2021 voting laws unconstitutional

by Alex Sakariassen with the Montana Free Press | Mar. 27th, 2024

“In a highly anticipated ruling Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s finding that four laws passed by the 2021 Legislature violate the fundamental rights of voters outlined in the Montana Constitution.”

“'This decision is about the power of the people — especially youth and Native Americans — to choose who represents them in government,'” Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, executive director of the Helena-based nonprofit Upper Seven Law and attorney for the youth plaintiffs, said in an emailed statement. 'Today the court has affirmed that Montanans must be allowed to freely exercise their right to vote, the key to democracy.'”

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Judge rules lawmakers should get chance to vote on Gianforte's late veto

by Jonathon Ambarian with KTVH | Jan. 16th, 2024

“On Tuesday, District Judge Mike Menahan sided with three organizations that filed a lawsuit, seeking to require Gianforte and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to let lawmakers vote by mail on whether to uphold the governor’s veto on Senate Bill 442. He also denied Gianforte and Jacobsen’s requests to throw out the case.”

“Menahan said the Legislature has no way to vote to override a veto before it is aware of the veto, so it made sense to define a veto as “in-session” or “out-of-session” based on when lawmakers receive it, not when the governor signs it.”

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Why Montana’s Two-Spirit people are challenging a state law that defines sex as binary

by Nicole Chavez with CNN | Dec. 4th, 2023

As they fight to reclaim their history, some in Montana’s Two-Spirit community are challenging a state law that defines sex as binary because it “infringes” on their spiritual and cultural beliefs.

In October, attorneys representing the Two-Spirit nonprofit Montana Two Spirit Society along with a group of transgender, intersex and nonbinary Montana residents, filed a lawsuit in Missoula County District Court challenging the law. They argue the state’s definitions of sex “improperly categorizes many Montanans, excludes others from legal recognition entirely, and deprives them of the benefits and protections of myriad state laws.” The complaint also argues the law violates Montana’s individual dignity, equal protection, privacy and freedom of speech laws.

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Lake County pledges new jail facilities in settlement

by Seaborn Larson with the Billings Gazette | Nov. 28th, 2023

“Lake County officials have pledged to expand their jail facilities as part of a settlement negotiated with inmates who sued over the conditions there. Upper Seven Law, one of the firms representing the inmates in the matter, announced this week a federal judge had given final approval to the settlement on Nov. 21.”

“'This agreement is a victory for the inmates at the Lake County Jail and for the entire community,' Constance Van Kley, an attorney for the inmates, said in a press release. "No one should be forced to live without sunlight, fresh air and the opportunity to exercise. Today marks a significant step toward a more humane Lake County Jail."”

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Lawsuit challenges Montana Legislature’s new PSC map as unconstitutional gerrymander

by Blair Miller with the Daily Montanan | Oct. 31, 2023

Lawyers for Montana Conservation Voters and a group of Montanans from across the state filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the new Public Service Commission district map redrawn this year by the Republican supermajority legislature, which they say is gerrymandered to favor Republicans in violation of the state constitution.

Extreme political gerrymanders, like SB 109, lead to less competitive — and in many cases uncompetitive — electoral races,” the lawsuit says. “Partisan gerrymandering reinforces extreme partisanship. When they do not need to compete across party lines for votes, politicians have no incentive to build consensus or seek middle ground.”

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Public records Lawsuit targets gov's office correspondence

by Sam Wilson with the Helena Independent Record | Oct. 17, 2023

The complaint alleges that Gianforte and Montana’s top health official have violated the state constitution’s “right to know” by withholding public records under the justification that they’re subject to attorney-client privilege and “executive privilege.” The law firm is asking the court to order the administration to release the requested documents and pay attorney fees in the case.

The nonprofit law firm alleges that it was attempting to verify whether Milanovich had “instructed Montana agencies to refuse to assure compliance with federal law, including federal nondiscrimination law, on the basis of Senate Bill 458."

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Transgender, intersex Montanans challenge law defining ‘sex’ as binary

by Eric Dietrich with the Montana Free Press | Oct. 12, 2023

Attorneys for a group of transgender and intersex Montanans said this week that they have filed a lawsuit challenging a new law that enshrines binary, reproduction-based definitions for “male,” “female” and “sex” across the state’s legal code.

The plaintiffs in the new challenge, filed in Missoula County District Court, maintained they don’t neatly fit into the categories the law imposes, arguing that the legislation’s definitions are “unscientific,” “unworkable” and deprive them and other Montanans of legal recognition and protection from discrimination.

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Judge blocks portion of law allowing charter schools in Montana

by Alex Sakariassen with the Montana Free Press | Sep. 6th, 2023

A state judge in Helena Wednesday blocked portions of a law passed by the 2023 Legislature to create a system of charter schools — or what supporters call “community choice schools” — in Montana.

In issuing the partial injunction Wednesday, Abbott wrote that the competition for enrollment and state funding generated by choice schools gives “every qualified elector in the district” an interest in the outcome of those choice school board elections. There is “no compelling interest in excluding electors merely because they are not employed or enrolled in the school,” Abbott continued, adding that the plaintiffs are “likely to succeed” in their claims challenging the constitutionality of that electoral model.

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Montana's anti-drag ban law on hold ahead of Pride festivities

by Mara Silvers with the Montana Free Press | July 28th, 2023

“A federal judge in Helena on Friday temporarily blocked state officials from enforcing Montana’s new law restricting drag story hours and drag shows ahead of one of the state’s largest LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations, which is slated to kick off Sunday in the state capital. ”

“U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris’ ruling said a temporary restraining order on House Bill 359 is warranted to avoid the restriction of free speech rights for plaintiffs and Pride attendees and to relieve the city of Helena from the “untenable choice” between violating the constitution’s First Amendment protections or the new state law when considering whether to issue permits for the weeklong festivities.”

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Transgender woman, bookstore, sue over Montana law banning drag reading events

by Amy Beth Hanson with the Associated Press | July 6th, 2023

“A transgender woman, the owners of an independent bookstore and an educator who teaches in costume are among those challenging Montana’s first-in-the-nation law that bans people dressed in drag from reading to children in public schools or libraries. The federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Butte argues the law violates the free speech and equal protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.”

“Similar laws in other states have been temporarily blocked while legal challenges play out in court. The complaint calls the Montana law, sponsored by Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, 'a breathtakingly ambiguous and overbroad bill, motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ animus.'”

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Montana teachers, parents and education advocates challenge constitutionality of charter school bill

by Alex Sakariassen with the Montana Free Press | June 15th, 2022

A coalition of teachers, parents and statewide advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging one of two recently passed charter school laws as a violation of the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of educational equality for all students. The complaint was filed by the nonprofit Upper Seven Law on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, including the Montana Quality Education Coalition and League of Women Voters of Montana. The lawsuit maintains that House Bill 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, violates the U.S. and state constitutions 'at least six times over.' HB 562 is slated to go into effect July 1, but the plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction from the Lewis and Clark County District Court to block the law while the litigation proceeds.

The list of alleged violations in the complaint is extensive, including claims that HB 562 usurps the constitutional authority of existing local school boards and the Board of Public Education and that it fails to properly hold charter schools accountable to the state constitution’s Indian Education For All provision. Plaintiffs also argue the law 'narrowly restricts' who can participate in elections for a charter school’s governing board and who can run in those elections, allegedly violating state and federal voting rights.

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Conservation groups sue Gianforte over veto dispute

by Seaborn Larson with the Helena Independent Record | June 7th, 2022

Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation, two conservation groups that helped get the bill passed with support from 130 lawmakers of the 150-member Legislature, filed the lawsuit Wednesday. They are asking a judge to declare Gianforte's veto of SB 442 ineffective and to compel him to return the bill and his veto letter to the Secretary of State’s Office and for Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to poll lawmakers for an override.

The groups, represented by Upper Seven Law in Helena, argue the timing of the governor’s veto circumvents the Legislature’s check on the executive’s power. 'While the governor has the constitutional authority to veto SB 442, he cannot veto SB 442 or any other law in a manner that interferes with the Legislature’s ability to override that veto,' the lawsuit states. '… In future sessions, a governor could time vetoes of all veto-proof bills at a politically opportune moment—waiting, for example, until one chamber adjourns sine die—and claim that, because the Legislature was still in session, the vetoes cannot be overridden.'”

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New Defamation Suit Against Fox Signals Continued Legal Threat

by Jim Rutenberg and Steven Lee Myers with the New York Times | May 10th, 2022

“Fox News was hit on Wednesday with another defamation lawsuit, this one from a woman who said the network promoted lies about her that generated serious threats to her safety and harmed her career prospects. The suit was filed on behalf of Nina Jankowicz, the former executive director of a short-lived Department of Homeland Security division assigned with coordinating efforts to monitor and address disinformation threats to national security. Right-wing pundits and politicians falsely portrayed her group as part of an Orwellian bid to control the speech and thought of ordinary Americans.”

“A lawyer for Ms. Jankowicz, Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, said in an interview that the Dominion case 'signals that there is a path' for defamation lawsuits against the network. 'Dominion shows us how egregious the internal conversations that are happening at Fox are; it shows us that Fox News has an absolute disregard for truth when it is related to their ratings.'”

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Montana health department sued after denying public records request

by Holly Michels with the Independent Record | December 15th, 2022

“A judge has ordered Gov. Greg Gianforte to provide the forms that tracked if the administration's agencies had concerns bills proposed in the 2021 legislative session would trigger litigation . . . 'If Montana courts were to recognize the kind of privilege the governor has described, it is unclear whether any documents in the governor's control would remain subject to disclosure,' Seeley wrote. 'Recognizing broad executive privileges would effectively gut the right to know as it applies to the executive branch because every document may inform the governor's decision-making in some way.'”

“Gianforte also argued the forms fell under executive privilege that protects some materials prepared for or by a governor. But Seeley rejected that argument, writing 'as a matter of law, there is no form of executive privilege recognized in Montana' . . . [Judge Seeley] found plaintiff's argument that open government allows for people to serve as a final check and balance on elected officials more convincing and more aligned with the intent of the framers.”

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Montana health department sued after denying public records request

by Emily Schabacker with the Billings Gazette | November 16th, 2022

“Following the announcement of his employment, very little information was released about the decision to hire Randol or his plans for the department. His recent streak of overseeing the privatization of Medicaid services in other states is worrisome to many, but it is unclear if the current administration plans to move Montana towards managed care, Zupanic said.

A number of lawsuits regarding public records request denials have come across Zupanic’s desk over the last two years. She has noticed less transparency and greater secrecy among government departments since Gov. Greg Gianforte took office. And it has hindered the public’s ability to engage in government, according to Zupanic.”

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Montana law allowing marriage, sex to factor into insurance rates challenged

by Ashley Nerbovig with KTVH Helena | November 4th, 2022

“A lawsuit filed Wednesday challenged the constitutionality of a 2021 law, which allowed insurance companies in Montana to factor sex and marital status into risk calculations. Financial institutions in Montana still can’t discriminate based just on sex or marital status. However, under the 2021 law, lawmakers carved out an exception allowing companies to use a person’s sex and marital status as a data point in assessing risk and setting insurance premiums.

“Plaintiffs attorney Rylee Sommers-Flanagan said the issue isn’t just the law allowing insurance companies to use data about sex and marital status to set premiums. The law makes using these factors a nondiscriminatory practice, which Sommers-Flanagan said means people cannot use the Montana Human Rights Bureau to seek help with discriminatory insurance determinations. The Montana human rights process can save people time and money when seeking relief from discrimination, Sommers-Flanagan said. Without it, anyone challenging an insurance rate as discriminatory will have to challenge it in court on a constitutional basis, she said.”

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COPP dismisses complaints against ACLU, MontPIRG and Forward Montana

by Alex Sakariassen with Montana Free Press | October 28th, 2022

“On Thursday, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan dismissed a trio of complaints filed last week by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen against three Montana-based nonprofits that recently won a lawsuit against her office. In each decision, Mangan determined that Jacobsen’s allegations were 'frivolous' and 'unsupported by evidence.

“In fact, in all three cases, Mangan noted that the underlying issues in each complaint had already been presented to his office and dealt with weeks earlier . . . With the latest trio of complaints, Mangan continued, Jacobsen instead triggered a formal process over issues that 'did not rise to a level of a potential violation,' necessitating an investigation, written responses from each nonprofit and a formal agency decision — 'a much more time consuming process.'”

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Health care providers tell Secretary of State to correct voter pamphlets over LR-131 inaccuracies

by Nicole Girten with the Daily Montanan | October 17th, 2022

“Attorneys representing Montana health care providers said in a letter to the Secretary of State’s Office the 2022 Voter Information Pamphlet contained false information on a ballot measure that would penalize doctors for not performing treatments on “born-alive” infants . . . In their rebuttal, the proponents’ argue LR-131 would require medical intervention for “infants born alive after an induced labor, cesarean section, attempted abortion or another method,” with an emphasis on “after.” The bill includes “natural” labor as well, which the rebuttal did not cite. Opponents want the public to understand that LR-131 would apply to “all infants, regardless of how labor began” and argue the Secretary of State should correct the record.”

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GOP election laws violate MT Constitution, judge rules

by Sam Wilson with the Independent Record | September 30th, 2022

“Jacobsen’s attorneys had argued that the laws were crafted to reduce the potential for voter fraud and bolster the public’s confidence in Montana’s election processes. But Moses noted in his order 'There is no evidence of significant or widespread voter fraud in Montana, let alone any fraud that (the challenged laws) would remedy.' 

“Noting that young Montanans turned out to vote in record numbers during the 2020 election, Moses wrote that 'Montana’s legislators passed the bill to prevent some young Montanans from exercising their right to vote, in direct contravention of Montana’s Equal Protection Clause.'

“Kiersten Iwai, the executive director of the Forward Montana Foundation, praised Moses’s order. The organization, along with other youth groups, was represented by Upper Seven Law. 'Youth turnout in Montana has increased dramatically over the last decade,' she stated in a press release Friday. 'The Legislature’s response? To make voting more complicated. This ruling reflects that access to the ballot box in Montana must remain free, fair, and straightforward.'”

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High court puts brakes on laws ending Election Day registration, tightening voter ID requirements

by Sam Wilson with the Independent Record | September 21st, 2022

“The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday barred the state from enforcing laws eliminating Election Day voter registration and creating stricter requirements for voter identification at the polls. . . . The court’s majority referred to expert testimony that the voter ID law would disproportionately burden young people, who the law requires to provide additional forms of identification at the polls if their only form of photo ID is from their college or university.

"The majority balanced that against the state’s interest in preventing voter fraud and boosting voters’ confidence in the elections. The decision quoted one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, who stated that 'voter fraud of any sort is vanishingly rare in Montana, with only a handful of cases of the last 20 years,' and added that more than 8 million votes were cast in Montana elections during that time.”

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The gospel — and the GOP — according to J.D. Hall

by Arren Kimbel-Sannit with Montana Free Press | September 13th, 2022

“In January, at Jawort’s request, the case was moved from Richland County to a court in Cascade County under Judge Elizabeth Best. Jawort claimed that Hall’s repeated inflammatory comments about the case had tainted the local jury pool. Hall decried the switch as a tactic to try him in front of a hostile jury, and attacked Best as liberal in his speeches, going so far as to hold an event in Cascade County, in the middle of his litigation, titled “Judicial reform, Judge Best and removing bad judges from the state of Montana.” . . . The plaintiffs asked Best for sanctions after Hall repeatedly made winking threats online, for instance, posting on Twitter a picture of Graybill’s name in line with a series of taxidermied trophy mounts, or a photo of Hall holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with the caption, “Democrat lawyers go after JD Hall — JD Hall goes on statewide tour going after them back.”

“In May, with the bankruptcy proceeding underway, Hall settled with Jawort. As part of the settlement, Hall, who has long publicly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of trans identity because, he’s said, he can only speak what he calls objective truth, was forced to post a public apology on MDG’s homepage, admitting the story was false."

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State rep testifies GOP leadership wanted laws to make it harder for youth to vote in Montana

by Darrell Ehrlick with the Daily Montanan | August 23rd, 2022

"Meanwhile, a former county election official and current Republican lawmaker told the court that registering voters and counting ballots was part of the responsibilities of those local officials, regardless of county size, and that the GOP worked to place impediments in the way of youth voters, especially because legislative leaders feared that Election Day registration is largely utilized by young voters at college or universities, and they believe that most of those students tend to vote liberal."

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Judge rules law violates new voters' rights to access their ballot

by NBC Montana | July 27th, 2022

"A District Court judge ruled Wednesday that House Bill 506 violates the Montana Constitution. The bill restricts ballot access for voters who turn 18 in the month before election day. Judge Michael G. Moses’ ruling says 18-year-olds must be allowed to access their ballots . . . Youth plaintiff groups, Montana Youth Action, Forward Montana Foundation, and Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) challenged this bill and two others last fall, alleging that the Montana Legislature had discriminated against the youngest members of the electorate. These bills weave a web of administrative challenges that deter and sometimes prevent young people from voting, denying the newest members of the electorate the systems they rely on for streamlined ballot access and election navigation."

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Judge blocks 4 new voting laws backed by MT GOP

by Sam Wilson with the Independent Record | April 6th, 2022

"Judge Michael Moses granted a preliminary injunction to the coalition of plaintiffs, putting on hold controversial legislation that added new voter identification restrictions and ended Montana’s practice of allowing residents to register and vote on Election Day. Two other laws were also blocked, which limit third-party ballot collection and prevent ballots from being sent out to new voters in advance of their 18th birthdays. . . . Rejecting Jacobsen’s argument that only 'a small sliver of potential voters' would be affected, Moses wrote that 'these voters previously had a voting avenue open to them that has now been closed.' He noted that the youth groups showed that an estimated 763 new voters would face 'confusion and difficulty when voting' due to the law."

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Federal judges order new map for 2022 utility board election

by Eric Dietrich with Montana Free Press | February 10th, 2022

"A panel of federal judges has ordered Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to use a court-drawn district map for this year’s Public Service Commission elections, shifting the district assignments for four Montana counties days before the March 14 candidate filing deadline for the two PSC seats up for election this year. The order, issued Tuesday, also formally rules that the existing utility regulation board districts, which haven’t been updated by the state Legislature since 2003, have become so unbalanced that they violate voters’ rights to proportional representation."

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Voters offer redrawn PSC districts to federal judges

by Tom Lutey with the Billings Gazette | February 10th, 2022

"Voters challenging the unconstitutional balance of Montana’s Public Service Commission districts have submitted maps to a panel of federal judges . . . [Secretary of State] Jacobsen is arguing the PSC districts should remain unconstitutional at least until 2023 when the Montana Legislature meets in general session and could, if it chose to, redraw the districts."

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Judge strikes part of law, saying last-minute changes violated Constitution

by Seaborn Larson with the Independent Record | February 3rd, 2022

"Judge Mike Menahan ruled legislators violated the state Constitution when they added sections unrelated to the original intent of the bill in a late-session meeting without public participation . . . 'The Legislature failed to abide by the Montana Constitution’s few simple rules on lawmaking,' said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. 'The court has simply held that the Constitution remains supreme.' "

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First two rounds go to Jawort in lawsuit against Hall/Knox

by Mark Berryman with the Sidney Herald | January 28th, 2022

"The first volley in the lawsuit of Adrian Jawort (plaintiff) vs Gideon Knox, LLC/Gideon Knox Group/Jordan “JD” Hall has ended and did not turn out the way Knox and his attorneys had hoped. In two rulings filed Jan. 25, 2022, the court ruled against Knox."

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Federal judge: At least two Public Service Commission districts are ‘presumptively unconstitutional’

by Amanda Eggert with Montana Free Press | December 6th, 2021

"A federal judge issued an order yesterday blocking the state’s top election official from certifying candidates running for the Public Service Commission until the constitutionality of the commission’s district map has been evaluated . . . The ruling favors the plaintiffs, who sued Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen earlier this month, arguing that the current district map violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

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Governor sued for denying records request

by Seaborn Larson with the Independent Record | September 21st, 2021

"A lawsuit filed Tuesday against Gov. Greg Gianforte alleges the governor denied a public records request for documents from the 2021 legislative session. Jayson O'Neill, former executive director of the Western Values Project, is the sole plaintiff in the suit filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The suit claims in July the governor's office denied O'Neill's requests submitted in May, shortly after the Legislature adjourned, for agency bill monitoring forms, citing attorney-client privilege. The forms contain legal advice regarding bills passed by the 2021 Legislature, according to the filing. The governor's office also rejected O'Neill's second request for the records earlier this month, the lawsuit states."

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Lawsuit by Montana youth groups calls new Republican election laws 'a cocktail of voter suppression measures'

by Sam Wilson with the Independent Record | September 9th, 2021

"A trio of groups advocating for young Montanans are challenging several changes to Montana’s election laws enacted by the Legislature, calling them 'a cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young.' The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Yellowstone County District Court, targets three bills passed by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this year. Two are already the subject of existing lawsuits: Senate Bill 169, which tightened voter identification requirements, including requiring that student IDs be augmented with another form of identification for in-person voting; and House Bill 176, which ended Election Day registration in Montana. House Bill 506 previously received attention for a series of last-minute changes to the bill by Republicans, who amended it to alter the process for drawing Montana's new congressional district. Thursday's lawsuit challenges a different aspect of that law, which prevents ballots from being mailed out to new voters in advance of their 18th birthdays."

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Lawsuit claims Secretary of State's Office knowingly profited $120k off duplicate charges

by Maritsa Georgiou with NBC Montana | September 1st, 2021

"A new class action lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the Montana Secretary of State's Office of knowingly making more than $120,000 off double charging customers without notifying them of the error, saying the office’s policy for resolving overcharges violates Montana law. 'In Montana, the Secretary of State has a side hustle,' the first line of the lawsuit against Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen reads. The suit says the overcharging stems from a technical glitch but claims Jacobsen knew about the problems and carried on her predecessor’s policy of not refunding money unless requested in writing. Attorneys claim the SOS didn’t notify those affected."

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Helena district court judge will block 11th-hour additions to campaign finance law

by Mara Silvers with Montana Free Press | June 28th, 2021

"A district court judge Monday said he will temporarily block the implementation of two sections of a law regulating campaign finance practices, political organizing on college campuses and campaign contributions to judges. The temporary injunction is a win for plaintiffs, including the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) and Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, whose counsel said the law could throw pending legal proceedings into 'chaos.' "

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EIN 86-1632816