Judge dismisses Schweitzer's suit against Legislature

2010-12-29T16:15:00Z 2010-12-30T09:44:06Z Judge dismisses Schweitzer's suit against Legislature

By CHARLES S. JOHNSON

Gazette State Bureau

The Billings Gazette
December 29, 2010 4:15 pm  • 

HELENA — A Helena district judge Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer against the 2009 Montana Legislature over the constitutionality of a spending bill.

District Judge Kathy Seeley agreed with lawyers for the Legislature in granting their motion to dismiss the case, saying Schweitzer lacked the legal standing to file the suit because he asked for a ruling on a speculative outcome.

Schweitzer sued the 2009 Legislature and its budget committees in September, contending that House Bill 676, a companion bill to the main appropriations bill, HB2, contained multiple subject matters in violation of the state constitution.

Schweitzer let HB676 become law without his signature in the spring of 2009. Despite his reservations, Schweitzer said he declined to veto the bill, which he received after lawmakers had adjourned, because it would have required him to call a costly special legislative session to address his concerns.

Schweitzer argued that his veto power was compromised.

But Seeley wrote that the governor did “not identify any direct impairment of his veto, only that he did not like what he perceived to be the consequences of a veto.”

He asked the court to strike down the law as unconstitutional, but delay the ruling until mid-2011 to give the 2011 Legislature a chance to fix the problems.

The judge said the governor's veto power is important and should not be constrained, but “in this case there was no restriction on the governor's veto power.”

“The fact is that his veto power was never in jeopardy,” Seeley wrote. “Instead, he chose not to exercise it and not to sign the bill, both of which were legitimate options.”

The judge went on to say that one cannot have standing to file suit over “speculative circumstances or speculative injury.”

The court cannot restore any alleged harm to the governor's veto power with “a prospective ruling to address a legislative enactment that has yet to exist,” Seeley wrote.

Schweitzer has not decided yet whether to appeal Seeley's ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, said Sarah Elliott, his spokeswoman.

“We questioned the constitutionality of the bill, and the judge didn't disagree with us on that,” Elliott said. “The Montana Legislature shouldn't act like Congress and should not send us unconstitutional bills.”

Legislative leaders praised Seeley's ruling.

“Obviously, we're very pleased on a couple of fronts, one for the legislative branch and one for taxpayers,” said Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings, chairman of the Legislative Council.

“I'm just hoping the litigation is at its end, and we don't have to spend further taxpayer resources on the lawsuit.”

He said he hopes the lawsuit and judge's decision will lead to improved communication between the two branches of government. Himmelberger said that's already happening.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, the vice chairwoman of the Legislative Council, said she's “just tickled” with the court ruling.

“I think it's really important going into the session to have the legislators get their feet under them again,” Williams said. “So now I think the Legislature is back to the power the constitution gave us, which is to pass a budget and make laws that are appropriate, and I think they were in this case.”

Williams said what happened in 2009 was unusual because of federal stimulus money that the Legislature had to appropriate late in the session.

“We weren't trying to take away his authority,” she said. “He was trying to take away ours.”

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