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Why I’m appointing a new Senate committee

by Jason Ellsworth
| April 21, 2024 12:00 AM

I recently announced that I’m in the process of appointing a new committee of the state Legislature.

The Senate Select Committee on Judicial Oversight and Reform is a bipartisan committee that will be made up of state senators, representatives and members of the public. It will be charged with addressing violations of the state’s constitutional separation of powers by the Montana Supreme Court and certain district court judges. 

A series of troubling judicial rulings at the district court and Supreme Court levels spurred this decision. A majority of state senators recently signed a letter condemning an unconstitutional veto override poll ordered by the courts. Multiple senators, including leadership, have raised alarm about a Supreme Court ruling interfering with internal legislative rules. 

Just recently, I had to respond to two separate Supreme Court rulings intruding on the Legislature’s lawmaking role. House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and I have filed amicus briefs on behalf of the Legislature in the Held climate case and a lawsuit over a 2021 bill. 

A bipartisan group of legislators and housing advocates have expressed concerns about a ruling from a Gallatin County district court judge temporarily blocking some of the 2023 Legislature’s “Montana Miracle” pro-housing bills. The Supreme Court is also currently trying to give one citizen ballot initiative preferential treatment compared to all other initiatives.

The committee’s objectives will include creating legislation to rein in these and other abuses of power, restoring coequal power among Montana’s branches of government, establishing more oversight of the judiciary, strengthening legislative rules and procedures, and improving court processes on important constitutional cases. The Montana Constitution gives the Legislature broad powers to investigate any branch of government and make laws to address problems that are uncovered. 

It’s unfortunate that we’ve reached this point, but Montana’s courts are straying far from their constitutional lane, attempting to become a “super Legislature” that is superior to both the legislative and executive branches. Our constitutional system does not allow that. Instead, it intentionally divides power among the different branches to minimize any one part of the government having too much power to infringe on the rights and lives of citizens.

If one branch is operating beyond its limited scope of power, it can have far-reaching impacts on all types of issues that affect Montanans’ daily lives, from the ability to afford a house to being able to keep the lights on. 

As the branch of government closest to the people, it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to protect the rights and will of our constituents. Because our Supreme Court is overreaching, it’s therefore our duty as lawmakers to attempt to rein the judiciary back in. 

This is a complex and challenging problem we face, which is why I’m appointing a large committee reflecting the makeup of the Legislature and getting members of the public directly involved. As with all legislative committees, any Montanan can show up and testify.

If you have solutions to the problem of judicial overreach, please send them to our committee. 

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is president of the Montana Senate. He is running for clerk of the Montana Supreme Court.