HELENA — Republicans on a Senate committee Friday voted against confirming a state district judge appointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock, in Great Falls – but the full panel voted to confirm another Bullock appointee on the state bench in Bozeman.
The Senate Judiciary Commmitee voted 7-4 against the confirmation of District Judge Michele Levine, who was appointed last year by Bullock.
That recommendation goes now to the full Senate. If it accepts the recommendation, Levine will have to step down and Gov. Greg Gianforte will appoint someone else to the Great Falls post.
Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said Levine’s past as a Democratic state legislator and lobbyist for environmental groups puts her on the “hard left” of the political spectrum and that she has “strong, inherent biases.”
“We’re looking for an independent-minded individual with track record as being such,” he said. “This (appointment) was doomed to failure because it was so biasedly partisan.”
But the committee unanimously voted to approve the nomination of District Judge Peter Ohman of Bozeman, also appointed last year by then-Gov. Bullock.
The committee has yet to act on the confirmation of one other Bullock judiciary appointee – District Judge Christopher Abbott of Helena.
When asked by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, when the committee planned to vote on Abbott’s confirmation, chairman and Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell would say only “not today.”
The issue of judicial appointments has become one of the most politically charged issues of the 2021 Legislature, as Gianforte, a Republican, and Republican lawmakers pushed through a new law that gives him more direct power to choose and appoint new state judges when vacancies occur.
That law is being challenged before the Montana Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Republicans also have formed a “select committee” to investigate whether the high court and state judges are biased against the new law or other laws passed by the GOP Legislature.
Sands, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during the debate on Levine’s confirmation that getting rid of her is part of a Republican effort to “have judges that are more suited to their political taste.”
McGillvray responded by saying that Republicans don’t want partisan judges on the right or the left, but rather those who are “independent-minded.”
In a statement Friday, Regier said Levine was chosen by Bullock over a candidate who had significant experience in Cascade County, and that she has a “long resume” as a Democratic officeholder and activist with “liberal political organizations” that supported Bullock.
He also said when she was asked about her responses to polls on where she stood on legislation before the 2021 session, she was “less than forthcoming.”
As for Ohman, a former public defender, Regier said he “thoroughly answered” the committee’s questions during his confirmation hearing, has a “balanced and nonpartisan resume” and did not express an opinion on a poll on bills before the session.