HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court Tuesday declined to reconsider its earlier ruling that voided legislative Republicans’ subpoenas to obtain internal court emails and documents.
The unanimous two-page order – the latest twist in the months-long battle waged by Republicans against the high court and the state judiciary – said the request for rehearing “mischaracterizes or misapprehends numerous provisions of the court’s decision and suggest rulings the court did not make.”
“The (earlier ruling) is clear and speaks for itself,” the court concluded.
The July 14 decision declared the subpoenas invalid and said they could not be reissued, and ordered any emails initially obtained to be returned to the court.
Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office, which is representing the Legislature in the dispute, had asked the high court to reconsider its unanimous July 14 order.
The high court Tuesday said it reconsiders a decision only if it “overlooked some fact material to the decision,” missed a question brought up by a party that would have decided the case, or ruled in conflict with law or a controlling decision.
None of those factors applies, it said.
The court also said it did not prevent the Legislature from issuing subpoenas to obtain “appropriate information” from a government official and did not foreclose any negotiations between the court and lawmakers over records requests.
Beginning in early April, GOP lawmakers – with the help of Knudsen and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration – sought to obtain emails and documents from the high court, alleging the judiciary is biased against GOP-passed laws that may come before the courts.
Republicans also created a special legislative committee to investigate the judiciary.
The first subpoena was issued April 8 by the GOP chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and executed by the Gianforte administration, obtaining more than 5,000 emails from the court – some of which were distributed to the media.
Six days later, Republican leaders subpoenaed all seven Supreme Court justices, their top administrator and additional documents.
The court blocked those subpoenas while it determined their legality.
In the July 14 ruling, the court said the subpoenas do not serve a legislative purpose and therefore are invalid.
If legislators believe justices or judges have acted unethically or shown undue bias, they can file a complaint with the Judicial Standards Commission, which is the constitutionally created body to investigate judicial misconduct, the justices said.
Two justices also wrote special concurrences in July.
Justice Laurie McKinnon said the subpoenas must be quashed because they attempt to interfere with and malign a “co-equal and independent branch of government.”
“If members of the judiciary operated under the constant threat of having their work-related communications and judicial communications brought before the Legislature, the judicial branch would be at serious risk of losing its identity as an independent branch of government,” she said.
Justice Dirk Sandefur used even stronger language to denounce the effort by legislative Republicans as an attempt to undermine the independence of the only branch of government they don’t control.
The state’s democracy and its guarantees of personal freedoms and protections depend on the “distinct functions” of all three co-equal branches of government, he wrote.
“This simple, self-evident principle is more important than ever when, as now, a single political faction overwhelmingly controls the two partisan branches of state government, rendering it quite expedient to irresponsibly attack and attempt to undermine the only non-partisan branch in an effort to attain unitary, unfettered—in effect, authoritarian— power, unconstrained by constitutional limits,” Sandefur said.