Montana Court Records
How Does the Montana Supreme Court Work?
Montana Supreme Court is the highest court and court of last resort, established under Article VII of the Montana Constitution. It is primarily an appellate court with general jurisdiction, but the constitution grants it original jurisdiction in some cases.
Per its general jurisdiction, the court reviews rulings by the lower trial courts on civil and criminal cases and specialty courts of limited jurisdiction. As Montana does not have an intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court does not have the discretion to reject appeals. Thus, it must hear appeals from all district courts, workers’ compensation courts, and the water court.
The justices of the Montana Supreme Court review cases based on the interpretation of the Montana state constitution, Federal Constitution, and Montana Statutes. Judges also consider precedence set by judgment over similar issues as well as authoritative sources of law. Consequently, the Supreme Court’s ruling voids a lower court’s declaration unless overturned by an amendment to the applicable section of the constitution or a new Congress act. An example is State v. Christensen (2020).
On the other hand, the constitution grants the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the original actions it chooses to accept. Thus, the Supreme Court generally asserts original jurisdiction over habeas corpus applications from state inmates and petitions for supervisory control over district court cases. An example is Simon v. Montana (2014). Furthermore, the Supreme Court may choose to assert original jurisdiction if a case does not involve the dispute of facts but merely presents legal or constitutional questions. While the Montana Supreme Court is an apex court, the U.S. Supreme Court appeal can overturn the ruling in some cases. An example is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020). The apex court can also reverse its own judgment, as set in Schoof v. Nesbit et al.
A case gets to the Montana Supreme Court when the appellant decides to appeal the district court’s ruling. The apex court is not a fact-finding body; hence, the court bases declarations on the litigants’ attorneys’ written briefs. If there is a need for clarification or further questioning, the court will schedule an oral argument. The Supreme Court prepares an average of 30 oral arguments per year. Furthermore, there are no witnesses or juries present during oral arguments. Only two attorneys, one for each side, argue the case before a panel of justices.
The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and six associate justices elected by the qualified electors in nonpartisan state elections. The chief justice is the administrative head of the Montana judicial system. In addition to administrative duties, the chief justice presides over the District Court Council, responsible for disbursing state funding to Montana’s district courts.
Justices are elected to the first term of 8 years and may seek reelection. Supreme Court Justices do not have term limits and may serve until retirement or removal from office. Montana does not have a mandatory retirement age for justices, but justices can face removal from office by:
- Impeachment: This begins when a two-thirds vote convicts two-thirds of the house votes for impeachment and the senate’s justice.
- Disciplinary action: The Supreme Court may suspend or remove a judge based on the judicial standards commission (JSC). The action begins when the JSC investigates complaints about the misconduct or unethical conduct of a judge.
If a judge is incapacitated or removed from office, the governor may appoint an interim justice to hold the office for the remainder of the unexpired term. The appointment begins when the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission presents three to five nominees to the governor, who must fill the vacancy within 30 days of nomination. However, if the governor does not select a nominee within the specified window, the chief justice will appoint the interim justice. In either case, the appointment must follow confirmation by the senate.
Generally, justiceship candidates must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Must be a citizen of the United States
- Must have resided in the state at least two years before taking office
- Must have been admitted to the Montana State Bar for at least five years before the date of appointment or election
- Must reside within the state during the terms of office
- Cannot hold any other elected office of public service
- Must abide by the canons of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct
Other staff members of the Supreme Court include the Clerk and the Administrator. The Clerk of Court is an elected official responsible for processing appellate filings, maintaining court records, and disseminating publicly available court records to requesters. The Clerk also prepares annual reports of the court’s yearly caseload statistics.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court Administrator assists the Chief Justice with administrative duties. Among several responsibilities, the administrator prepares and presents the legislature’s judicial budget, manages court personnel, and generally liaisons with the legislature.
The Montana Supreme Court holds sessions at the state capital, and interested public members may attend court proceedings. However, admission into the courtroom is limited to court officials, parties involved in the case, and early visitors. Access for visitors is on a first-come, first-in basis. The Montana Supreme Court is located at:
Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building
215 North Sanders Street
P. O. Box 203001
Helena, Montana 59620–3001
Phone: (608) 266–7442
The Montana Supreme Court maintains an online case repository that is searchable with the case number, party name, and other details. The advanced search feature helps to refine the search with filing dates and other information. It also maintains an online docket for cases filed in the court. Interested public members may access active dockets, closed dockets, and archived dockets from 1979 to date. The searcher may use the case number, name of litigants, and the attorneys involved to query the database. Likewise, the public may access daily orders and opinions published by the Supreme Court.