Court dismisses complaint against judge, lawyer appeals decision to Montana Supreme Court

By: - September 20, 2022 3:16 pm

A photo of Lewis and Clark County District Judge Michael McMahon talking about his candidacy for Supreme Court justice (Photo by Arren Kimbel-Sannit of the Daily Montanan).

A Gallatin County district judge has dismissed a complaint against a fellow district court judge in Helena, saying that the complaint is a matter for the state’s judicial standards commission, not a matter for the courts.

Attorney Matthew Monforton filed a notice of appeal of the decision on Monday at the Montana Supreme Court, asking the state’s only appeal court to reverse Judge Rienne McElyea’s ruling.

Monforton alleges that Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon used his courtroom as a “political prop” when he announced his campaign for Montana’s Supreme Court inside the Helena courthouse. McMahon ran in a three-way primary against incumbent Ingrid Gustafson and current Public Service Commissioner James Brown, but lost.

However, Monforton said that using state resources, namely a courtroom, in a political campaign is illegal, and had previous appealed the decision of the Commissioner of Political Practices who ruled state law does not include members of the judiciary.

Both Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan and McElyea acknowledged that had a member of the executive branch used a courtroom for a campaign kick-off, that would have likely triggered the state’s ethics statutes. However, both lawmakers and the Montana Constitution treat the judiciary differently, and both have said that any discipline from the matter must be meted by the Montana Judicial Standards Commission.

Monforton has appealed the decision and has argued in legal briefs that the law should and does include members of the judiciary.

“Judges should be subject to the same ethics rules and procedures as every other state official,” Monforton said.

But McElyea disagreed with Monforton’s argument.

“If the legislature had also intended for the Code of Ethics to be applicable to the judicial branch, it could have easily done so. Rather, in defining ‘state agency,’ the legislature specifically excluded the judicial branch. A plain reading of the entirety of the Montana Code of Ethics establishes that it does not apply to judges,” McElyea wrote.

However, she also pointed out that the judges have rules and guidelines which are called for by the state’s constitution.

“The exclusion of the judiciary from the Montana Code of Ethics does not mean judges are not subject to ethical standards as argued by (Monforton). Rather the Montana Constitution separately called for the legislature to create a judicial standards commission,” McElyea wrote.

Judicial standards proceedings and any disciplinary action would be taken up by the commission, but it’s unknown if any has been filed. Any complaint received or investigated by the commission is confidential until a final determination is made.

“The Judicial Standards Commission is a farce – it’s where ethics complaints go to die,” Monforton said. “Montanans are entitled to accountability from their judges, something that the Judicial Standards Commission is designed to thwart.”

 

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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