Group asks judge to block bill to change judiciary, limit political speech on campus

The constitutionality of the bill was challenged on June 1

The stairs of the Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

Forward Montana and its co-plaintiffs have asked a Lewis and Clark County district judge to block a bill that prohibits some election activities on public university campuses and requires judges to recuse themselves from cases for accepting specific campaign contributions, according to a request for a preliminary injunction on the law filed on June 4.

The plaintiffs filed a suit against Montana and Gov. Greg Gianforte, alleging that Senate Bill 319 is unconstitutional on June 1. In arguing for a preliminary injunction, they said they stand to irreparable injury by losing a constitutional right. The bill would impact voter registration efforts on college campuses, along with other political activities, and requires any judge who has received $91 or more in the past six years from any lawyer or party in a lawsuit to recuse themselves.

“A preliminary injunction is necessary to preserve the status quo and to prevent grave and irreparable injury to Plaintiffs. SB319 becomes effective on July 1, 2021,” the request alleged. “If SB319 takes effect during the pendency of this litigation, it will cause a chaos of substitutions in pending cases in district courts in Montana, substantially disrupting the judicial system and injuring Plaintiffs.”

Among the plaintiffs are Forward Montana, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and Gary Zadick.

The bill violating the state’s single-subject rule and being amended without public comment is among the alleged state constitutional violations. In the final hours of the 67th legislative session, SB319 was taken to a free conference committee where members added amendments that the Legislature approved with no public input. In addition, the law is being challenged in two separate lawsuits.

“As enacted, Senate Bill 319 plainly violates two of the Montana Constitution’s only rules for lawmaking: It fails to conform to the “single-subject rule” and, separately, it violates the prohibition against amending bills such that they fail to retain their original purpose,” the suit read.

While the state has no filed a brief opposing the preliminary injunction, they did file a request, alleging potential bias, objecting to Lewis and Clark County District Judge Michael McMahon from presiding over the case. The rule states a judge should be disqualified from the case if … “a person who has more than a de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding.” The State Attorney General’s office, which is representing Gianforte, did not immediately reply to a request for more information about the objection to McMahon.

On Monday, McMahon ruled against the state in issuing a preliminary injunction on House Bill 102, which allows for expanded rights to carry guns on public college campuses. McMahon also ruled against the state by blocking a legislative subpoena issued to Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice.

A hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for June 15 at 3:30 p.m.