HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a ballot initiative that would have required candidates for the high court to be chosen from geographical districts instead of through statewide elections.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-to-1 ruling, upheld a March court decision that said the proposed initiative is unconstitutional because it would have required candidates to live within those districts.
The Montana Constitution requires only that a candidate live in the state for two years. The additional residency requirement would have amounted to a constitutional change that can’t be made with a regular ballot initiative forwarded by the state Legislature, District Judge James Reynolds had ruled.
The high court’s decision was for an expedited appeal because the initiative was to be placed on June 5 primary ballots. The justices said an opinion and analysis will follow in due course.
Four justices and two district judges sitting in place for justices Mike McGrath and Brian Morris agreed with the order.
The sole dissenter, Justice Beth Baker, wrote in a brief note attached to the order that she would place the initiative on the ballot because the case was not yet ready to be decided. The court would retain jurisdiction for an appeal if the measure were approved, she wrote.
The Republican-controlled Legislature last year sent the initiative directly to the June 5 primary election. Fourteen people then sued to remove it from the ballot.
Supporters of the measure have argued that justices elected statewide favor Democrats and do not represent certain places, like the rural areas that generally favor Republicans.
State Sen. Joe Balyeat, the Bozeman Republican who advanced the measure in the Legislature last year, said he does not consider the initiative unconstitutional because he believes the residency requirement does not apply to candidates, just to the justices once elected.
Even if the constitutional residency provision covers candidates, too, the initiative should still be allowed to go to voters, he said.
“A candidate who resides in a given Montana district is by definition ‘residing in the state of Montana,’ so there is absolutely no conflict,” Balyeat said.
All of the sitting Supreme Court justices should have recused themselves from this case because of their interest in the outcome, Balyeat said.
He is considering taking the case to federal court, but he acknowledges it is likely too late to put the initiative back on the June 5 ballot.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.