After a month-long struggle, the public is now able to learn about the applicants seeking to serve as Montana’s next Supreme Court Justice by logging on to the Supreme Court law library Web site. The Independent had originally asked the seven-member Judicial Nomination Commission to make the applications public in order to survey the candidates for a story, and also to enable the public to partake in the mandated public comment period before Gov. Judy Martz began her selection process.
The commission had originally denied requests to have the applications made electronically available. Such requests came not only from the Independent, but also from Supreme Court Law Librarian Judy Meadows and President of the Montana Shooting Sports Association Gary Marbut (see “Who’s judging whom?” Feb. 27, 2003 and “And the nominees are,” March 13, 2003, by Mike Keefe-Feldman).
But on Thursday, March 13, the Montana Supreme Court stepped in and directed the commission to post the information on the law library Web site.
In a 5-2 decision, the court wrote, “The Court has concluded that since the application materials are currently in the public domain, having been released to at least one news agency, and that the current applicants have all waived any privacy interests they may have in the application materials, the State Law Librarian may and shall post the applications on the State Law Library website so that the application information is available for the public’s examination…the citizens of Montana are provided 30 days within which to express their comments to the Commission concerning the applicants. We conclude that the written applications provide meaningful information to the public and assist interested citizens in the exercise of their statutory right to comment during the prescribed period.”
The decision was signed by Justices Jim Regnier, Patricia Cotter, William Leaphart, James Nelson and Terry Trieweiler. Chief Justice Karla Gray and Justice Jim Rice dissented. In the dissenting opinion, Gray disagreed with the majority on “procedural grounds.”
“If a member of the public, the media or anyone else—including our State Law Librarian—wishes to challenge a decision of the Judicial Nomination Commission, the right to do so via an actual court proceeding…is unquestioned…However, I submit that we have no authority to essentially reverse a decision of the independent Judicial Nomination Commission via a personal, informal request by any person,” Gray wrote.
The public comment period is slated to end at 5 p.m. on Fri., March 21. However, Supreme Court Law Librarian Judy Meadows says that a petition has been sent to the commission requesting an extension of the comment deadline in light of the fact that the public has not had adequate access to review the applications. Meadows did not state who delivered the petition, saying only that it was “a layperson.”
The applications—including biographical information and answers to essay questions from all 14 of the applicants for the Supreme Court seat—are available for public perusal at http://www.lawlibrary.state.mt.us/. Click on “Judicial Nomination Commission and Applicants,” and then on “Applicants.” If the public comment period is extended, public comment should be sent to: Randy Bishop, Secretary of the Judicial Nomination Commission, P.O. Box 3353, Billings, MT 59103.