A District Court judge indicated Wednesday that a portion of a Republican-backed ballot initiative, which many in the GOP hope will tilt Montana Supreme Court elections to their party’s favor, could be unconstitutional as alleged by critics. The Legislature last year sent the initiative directly to this June’s primary ballot. It establishes regional districts that would each elect one justice to the state’s high court. The court’s six justices and one chief justice are currently elected in statewide elections. Supporters argued that justices elected statewide favor Democrats and do not represent certain places, like the rural areas that generally favor Republicans. Opponents argued Wednesday in District Court in Helena that the proposal runs afoul of the Montana Constitution by adding qualification criteria for the judicial candidates. They are asking the courts to remove it from the ballot.
District Judge James Reynolds made it clear that he also likely believed that the provision requiring judicial candidates to live inside the proposed regional districts is unconstitutional. Current constitutional requirements only demand state residency, as opposed to the proposed new regional residency requirement.
Past courts have disallowed the Montana Legislature from either retracting or expanding provisions of the Montana constitution. “The residency requirement seems to me” could violate the constitution, Reynolds said. Reynolds said he hopes to make a decision by Tuesday.