Grand jury gripe 

If Duane Sipe and hundreds of organized Bitterroot conservatives get their way, Montana's district court judges won't be the only people capable of convening a grand jury for much longer.

Last week, Sipe submitted a constitutional initiative proposal to Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. He hopes to have a measure on the 2010 general ballot allowing citizens to convene grand juries. It's a state right that Montanans have long been denied, he says.

"I found out that the public has been miseducated about various things in the way our form of government is supposed to work," Sipe says. "One of those is the process of the grand jury and what its intention is meant to be."

Sipe speaks passionately of grand juries as a "check against overreaching government" and a "law enforcer of the Constitution." If successful, his initiative will allow 0.5 percent of voters in a county to summon a grand jury to determine whether a legal case should go to trial.

McCulloch says constitutional initiatives like Sipe's face "an uphill climb." They must pass review by the attorney general and require 48,674 signatures to get on a ballot.

"It mostly comes down to how organized a group is, how widespread throughout the state of Montana, and oftentimes how deep the pockets are," McCulloch says.

But Sipe has a unique advantage. He's vice president of a Constitution studies committee with Celebrating Conservatism, a group in Hamilton garnering increased support across Montana. Mona Docteur, the group's founder, says this is Celebrating Conservatism's first attempt at actively changing state policy.

"Once we're ready to gather signatures, that's probably where the wheels will be put on this petition," Docteur says.

Docteur calls initiatives like this one "empowering" for the group's members, and Sipe was eager to spearhead the first initiative.

"What we're all about is looking for solutions rather than just sitting around growling about what we perceive to be problems out in our world," Sipe says. "This is one that we believe is a valid solution that we want to try and implement."

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