Ravalli County Commissioners have tentatively agreed to let a Mississippi-based law firm, described as conservative and extremist, appeal on the county’s behalf a 1999 District Court ruling which threw out three obscenity ordinances on constitutional grounds.
The 1996 lawsuit pitted the Ravalli Republic newspaper, as well as several other businesses and individuals, against Ravalli County. The case centered on the constitutionality of three ordinances outlawing obscenity. The ordinances were approved by the voters in 1994 and then challenged by a video rental store owner, a Hamilton bookstore owner, local journalist (and current Indepndent staffer) Ruth Thorning and crime novelist Jon Jackson, among others.
Last fall, District Judge Jeff Langton ruled that the ordinances, banning the distribution of obscenity, the display of obscenity to minors, and public nudity, were unconstitutional. The issue before the board of county commissioners last Tuesday was whether to appeal that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
On Tuesday morning, a standing-room-only crowd of adults, teen-agers and children packed the commissioners’ conference room and urged the board to accept an offer from the Tupelo, Miss.-based Center for Law and Policy to appeal on the county’s behalf.
The Center is associated with the American Family Association, and was asked to appeal on the county’s behalf by Dallas Erickson, president of Montana Citizens for Decency through Law. It was Erickson’s group that managed to get the three obscenity ordinances on the 1994 ballot in Ravalli County.
The board of county commissioners, and their attorneys, were skeptical of the offer. “Who are they?” asked County Commissioner Alan Thompson.
“To some,” Erickson replied, “they would be considered right-wing extremists because they stand up for values like abortion and school prayer. They’re conservative.”
The Center for Law and Policy has offered to represent Ravalli County in the damages claim portion of the lawsuit, which isn’t scheduled for a settlement conference until Oct. 25, but only if the commissioners are also willing to let the Center appeal the ruling on its merits.
If the commissioners agree, the Center won’t charge legal fees but will ask for travel, lodging and meal expenses. Even there, the county is off the hook financially since members of Erickson’s organization volunteered to pay those expenses out of their own pockets.
The offer proved too good for commissioners to reject, especially since neither County Attorney George Corn nor Jim Mickelson, the county’s contracted civil attorney, were willing to take on the appeal.
Commissioners won’t commit until they see evidence that the Center for Law and Policy is a reputable group. Stuart Bradshaw, a Stevensville attorney who represented Ravalli County in the original lawsuit, has agreed to investigate the Center and return by the end of the week with a go or no-go recommendation.