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Capitol Notebook Edition

Judges? We don’t need no stinking judges…

Fueled by their resentment over recent court losses and a tenuous grasp of civics, Republican legislators are churning out a rash of measures this session to strip state courts of their authority.

Bills to limit Supreme Court terms, pay justices only $20,000 a year (the same as legislators), allow nonlawyers to serve on the bench, and prohibit attorneys from making campaign donations to judicial candidates are just a few of the proposals being unveiled.

The main thing the measures have in common is that they all challenge one of the cornerstones of democracy—the separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Perhaps the GOP’s biggest burr is the high court’s decision last month to throw out at least one of the double-marked ballots cast in the House District 12 race, which featured Polson resident Jeanne Windham, a Democrat, running against Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore.

The ruling gave Windham the Lake County seat, creating a 50-50 tie between House Democrats and Republicans. That led to Democrats getting nine committee chairmanships; the remaining eight went to the Republicans.

Leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, a coveted plum, went to Rep. Diane Rice, a Harrison Republican described as a “rancher-caterer” in her legislative biography.

Many attorneys who have business before the committee, which oversees the state’s complex civil and criminal codes, were dismayed when Rice, a nonlawyer and an unapologetic hard-right partisan, was picked for the post. Observers say the selection was over Billings Rep. Mark Noennig, who has more tenure and is the only Republican attorney on the panel.

Rice has paid her party dues by serving on the Madison County Republican Central Committee and as county chairwoman for the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and former Gov. Judy Martz. Noennig is a political moderate. And moderation clearly is not what the GOP seems interested in.

Not surprisingly, party loyalist Rice has requested her own bill to neuter the courts by prohibiting voters from filing lawsuits to challenge election results in state House and Senate races.

As currently written, her bill would give the Legislature sole authority to review and decide all disputes arising from such elections, including allegations of fraud and how to deal with irregular ballots.

Rice’s idea of a two-branched government nirvana meshes well with another proposal by Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, to give the Legislature and governor authority to override distasteful court decisions.

But Windham may again have the last laugh. She’s drafting a bill to require mandatory hand recounts in some elections, which might be the best way to keep such battles out of court in the first place.

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