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Legislature passes new recusal requirements for judges

Legislature passes new recusal requirements for judges

Republicans on Wednesday passed a heavily amended elections bill that now establishes broad conflict-of-interest guidelines for judges in Montana, while prohibiting some political activities in dorms and other areas on public college campuses.

The requirement for judicial recusals was added Tuesday as an amendment to a largely unrelated bill, and comes as Republican lawmakers have been escalating a fight with the judicial branch.

Under the freshly amended Senate Bill 319, judicial officers would be disallowed from presiding over a case if they received at least half of the maximum individual contribution from a lawyer or party during the previous six years. They would also have to recuse themselves if a lawyer or party to the case donated to a political committee that supported the judge or opposed their opponent in the past six years.

Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick argued for the conflict-of-interest requirements, drawing on his background as an attorney in Great Falls.

"I think there’s tremendous pressure that’s felt by lawyers to contribute to judges, I think a lot of lawyers feel that they need to do it and I think this is a good way to perhaps break that and maybe people would feel a little more comfortable," Fitzpatrick said.

But the ramifications could be far-reaching, argued Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, when the bill came before the House on Wednesday for a floor debate. He said the governor’s history of giving to one of the Supreme Court justices could trigger recusals in every new law that faces a legal challenge, and suggested lawyers could twist the requirement by giving donations to force such a recusal from an unfriendly judge.

Perhaps the most forceful denunciation of the bill came from a Republican, Forsyth Rep. Geraldine Custer, who attacked the last-minute process that resulted in the bill while also arguing the conflict-of-interest requirements would be “a nightmare” on a local level.

“Most of these judges had been a county attorney or a prosecutor in the county before they become a judge,” Custer said. “They have to recuse themselves for so many things as it is, and then you’ve got to go back and see if somebody donated to you, from six years back?”

Another one of the new amendments to the bill bans voter registration, signature collection, voter turnout and other activities by political committees in on-campus residence halls, dining halls and athletic facilities. Violations would be subject to fines of $1,000 each.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, argued the restrictions on political activities fly in the face of two bills passed earlier in the session that sought to strengthen free speech protections on campuses.

“This body made a big deal about protecting free speech on campus, passing two bills on the subject … directly limits students’ rights to free political speech,” he said.

Republican Rep. Wendy McKamey of Ulm, however, countered the measure is intended to create boundaries for allowable campaign activity on campus. McKamey carried the bill on the House side.

“There’s still many opportunities for communication and for disseminating information,” she said. “What we’re saying is we don’t want to have rallies, we don’t want to have posters, we don’t want to have flags strewn in our dining halls and in our residence halls.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, originally focused solely on allowing joint fundraising committees for political campaigns. That portion, which remains in the bill, allows donors to cut a single, large check to multiple statewide candidates for office.

After emerging in its amended form Tuesday, the bill cleared all four procedural votes Wednesday and now heads to the governor for consideration.

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