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Montana Supreme Court allows plaintiffs to claim fees in constitutional challenge

Posted at 8:08 AM, Feb 01, 2024

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that plaintiffs who successfully challenged a state law as unconstitutional can claim legal fees from the state, saying the law was “an obviously unlawful Bill adopted through willful disregard of constitutional obligations and legislative rules and norms.”

The case centers on Senate Bill 319, passed during the 2021 legislative session. It originally dealt with campaign finance regulations, but near the end of the session, lawmakers amended it to add a prohibition of voter registration drives and other political activities in public college residence halls, as well as a provision requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases when they received campaign support from a lawyer involved in the case.

Plaintiffs, including Forward Montana and the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, sued over the law. They argued the changes violated two provisions of the state constitution: one requiring that bills only address a single subject, and one saying a bill can’t be “so altered or amended on its passage through the legislature as to change its original purpose.”

In 2022, District Court Judge Mike Menahan of Helena ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, he denied their request for attorney fees, finding the case was a “garden-variety” constitutional decision that didn’t justify awarding legal fees.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office decided to waive their right to appeal the case, but the plaintiffs appealed Menahan’s decision to deny them fees.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath, joined by justices Beth Baker, Ingrid Gustafson, Laurie McKinnon and Jim Shea, ruled that the case did merit awarding legal fees – not because of Knudsen’s defense of the law, which they found to be in good faith, but because of the Legislature’s actions.

In the majority opinion, authored by McGrath, they said lawmakers’ amendments were clearly outside the original scope of the bill and added with no opportunity for public participation or testimony. They argued that showed that lawmakers would have been well aware their actions were unconstitutional.

“[T]he constitutional policies vindicated here—to restrict legislative enactments to those made known to lawmakers and the public, to prevent legislators and the people from being misled, and to guard against obfuscation by the Legislature—are sufficiently weighty to justify fees,” they said.

The justices declined to award attorney fees themselves, but returned the case to Menahan for him to consider fees.

Justices Jim Rice and Dirk Sandefur dissented from the court’s decision. In Rice’s opinion, he said the burden of litigation on the plaintiffs had been relatively light, and that he disagreed with the majority’s “punitive purpose” in awarding fees.

“[T]he Court is using the Doctrine as a sword to punish the Legislature, to deter it from ‘wrongdoing,’ based in part on what I view as the Court’s revulsion at legislative ‘sausage-making,’” Rice wrote. “This is an inappropriate judicial consideration. The judiciary has no business intruding into the internal operation of another branch of government, except as the Constitution expressly permits it.”

Click here to read the court ruling.


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