Montana Court Records
How Montana City Courts Work
Montana City Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that handle cases involving the violation of city ordinances and small claims valued at less than $5,000. Fundamentally, city courts are similar to justice courts in the state but differ in that the court also handles city-related cases in addition to cases filed in the justice courts.
The civil jurisdiction of Montana City Courts covers:
- Monetary damages up to $7,000
- Landlord/Tenant disputes
- Tax/assessment disputes less than $5000
- Solemnization of marriages
Common criminal cases heard in Montana City Courts include:
- Fish and game violations
- City ordinance violations
- Orders of protection
- Possession of alcohol or tobacco by a juvenile
- Gambling offenses
- Traffic offenses
- Other misdemeanors within city limits
Depending on the ordinance, a city court may be a court of record or not. If it is a court of record, the law refers to the court as a city court of record. This means that court officials create and maintain physical records of court proceedings by a court reporter or electronic hearings records.
Furthermore, the means of selection depends on the city governing body and ordinance establishing the court. Thus, judges may either be selected in a non-partisan election or appointed by the governing body. And while Montana Statutes do not require City court judges to be lawyers, judgeship candidates must pass a character and fitness review, which the Judicial Standards Commission administers. The law also requires that judgeship candidates be citizens of the United States who must have resided in the county for at least one year before appointment or election.
Besides, city judges must uphold the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct’s cannons and attend two training conferences, which the Supreme Court supervises every year. City court judges reelected to the office must pass a Certification Examination each term. Behaviors counter to this will cause the Supreme Court to remove the judge from office and direct the city governing body to initiate the replacement procedure. Apart from these, city judges may be removed from office by:
- Disqualification: As required by Section 3–1–1502, judges must complete a course of training and education. Failure to obtain a certificate of completion disqualifies the elected or appointed judge from office.
- Impeachment: City court judges are subject to impeachment, and upon conviction, shall be removed from office.
- Forfeiture of judicial position: A city court judge automatically forfeits judgeship by either running for an elective public office or absence from the state for more than 60 consecutive days.
- Disciplinary Action: Upon the recommendation of the judicial standards commission, the Supreme Court may retire or remove a judge for willful misconduct in office.
- Incapacitation: If a judge has a severe disability that interferes with the performance of his or her duties, the judicial standards commission may retire that judge from office.
- Resignation: If a city judge chooses to resign from office, it is necessary to submit the resignation in writing to the city council or executive authority in the city.
If the judge is a party in the case, may exhibit personal bias, or files a disqualifying affidavit, city ordinances make provisions for a substitute judge. The substitute judge can be another city judge, justice of the peace, or an individual who meets established requirements.
According to judiciary statistics, city courts in Montana process an average of 600 cases and criminal violations annually, depending on the size. Larger city courts such as Butte City Court have a caseload of up to 6,000 annually, while smaller city courts like Forsyth City Court process a few hundred cases annually.
City courts in Montana conduct jury trials and the defendant may contract the services of an attorney or choose self-representation. For criminal cases, the City Court will conduct proceedings based on the Montana Code of Criminal Procedure. In this kind of case, the city attorney initiates proceedings against the offender. If found guilty, the city court judge may impose administrative fines, community service, jail time of fewer than six months, or a combination of sanctions. However, if a party is dissatisfied with a city court ruling, it is possible to petition the district court to initiate new proceedings on the case. The county attorney has the responsibility of filing the case as a prosecutor.
On the other hand, city courts conduct proceedings based on the City Court Rules of Civil Procedure for civil cases. A civil case begins when a plaintiff files a complaint with the city court. Upon filing, the city court judge will issue a summons and direct a law enforcement officer to serve the defendant. The summons will contain the name and contact information of the plaintiff or plaintiff attorney, address of the court, a directive to respond within twenty days or on a specified date, and a statement informing the defendant of the consequences of failure to appear or assert a counterclaim.
Typically, the case will proceed through a discovery phase, where litigants exchange documents, request written interrogatories, and dispositions relevant to the suit. The case proceeds to the pretrial conference where the parties involved make admissions and discuss matters to expect before the jury trial. Failure to comply with or participate in these stages may attract sanctions.
The case proceeds to a jury trial, at the end of which the judge will enter a judgment in the court docket. Next, the city judge will issue a writ of execution that is enforceable within the state. The writ is valid for 120 days, and parties can apply to renew it with additional interests or costs if the defendant does not satisfy the conditions stated in the writ of execution. Bear in mind that the litigants may reach a mutual plea bargain before or during the trial. Either party may also appeal the court’s decision to the district court.
City court proceedings are mostly open to the public, except for sensitive nature cases such as where there is a juvenile witness. For traffic offenses, offenders pay fines and other fees directly to the court or a state agency provided by the court.
The Montana Judicial Branch website provides a Court Locator tool for locating major city courts in Montana.