HELENA — The Republican-controlled Montana Senate will soon be considering whether to approve or reject the last three district judges appointed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The three judges are:
- Chris Abbott of Helena, 1st Judicial District
- Michele Reinhart Levine of Great Falls, 8th Judicial District
- Peter Ohman,of Bozeman, 18th Judicial District
Abbott and Reinhart Levine are set for confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday; Ohman will have a hearing on Friday.
Bullock appointed all three last fall to replace judges who had stepped down. The Senate has to confirm any appointed judge in order for them to keep their seat. If a majority of senators votes against any one of the three, that position will be opened again and current governor Greg Gianforte will appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
In a number of cases this session, the Senate has rejected Bullock’s appointees for boards and commissions to give Gianforte an opportunity to name his own candidates. However, Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said his party hasn’t already made a plan to replace these three judges. Still, he made clear in an interview with MTN that he will have questions during their confirmation hearings.
“Number one, I’d say, are they partisan?” he said. “I mean, how neutral are they as a judge? I think that’s the most important thing. How well do they follow the law, follow the constitution of Montana and the Constitution of the United States? That’s really important. Are they prone to legislate from the bench?”
Earlier this month, Gianforte signed Senate Bill 140 into law. The bill, sponsored by Regier, would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission and give the governor the authority to fill a vacancy on the bench by appointing any qualified attorney who applies for the position. SB 140 has been challenged in the Montana Supreme Court, but the court has not yet agreed to take the case.
Regier said he delayed the hearings while SB 140 was going through the Legislature, so the rules would be clear when the Senate made their decision.
Regier is carrying the resolutions to confirm Abbott and Ohman – though that does not indicate that he will eventually support their confirmations. Democratic Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula is carrying the resolution for Reinhart Levine. Regier said that wasn’t because he had a particular objection to Reinhart Levine, but because she and Sands served together as Democratic lawmakers, and Sands asked to sponsor her confirmation.