Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court
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The defendant, William Jerome Carnes, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He was charged with felony DUI for a fourth or subsequent offense, misdemeanor resisting arrest, and misdemeanor driving without a valid liability insurance policy in effect. Carnes failed to appear for his final pretrial conference, leading to an arrest warrant being issued. He was later arrested in Nevada for fleeing the scene of an accident and was sentenced to 24 to 72 months in the Nevada Department of Corrections.Carnes filed a pro se motion for a speedy trial or dismissal for lack of speedy trial and timely prosecution, citing the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Nevada Revised Statutes. The State argued that Carnes did not follow procedure as contemplated by statute to make a request for final disposition. The District Court agreed with the State and denied Carnes’s motion. Carnes then filed a motion to dismiss the case for the State’s failure to comply with the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, which was also denied by the District Court.In the Supreme Court of the State of Montana, Carnes appealed the order denying his motion to dismiss and the subsequent judgment on his plea of guilty to an amended charge of criminal endangerment pursuant to a plea agreement with the State. The court concluded that Carnes failed to preserve his right to appeal the District Court’s denial of his motion to dismiss. The court held that a defendant who voluntarily and knowingly pleads guilty to an offense waives all non-jurisdictional defects and defenses, including claims of constitutional rights violations which occurred prior to the plea. The court found that Carnes’s plea agreement contained no language reserving the right to appeal after his guilty plea and he did not comply with the statutory requirements to reserve the right to appellate review of the adverse pretrial ruling. Therefore, the judgment of the District Court was affirmed. View "State v. Carnes" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around the defendant, Luke Strommen, who was charged with Sexual Intercourse Without Consent (SIWC) and Sexual Abuse of Children. The charges stemmed from allegations made by two women, one of whom claimed that she had an ongoing sexual relationship with Strommen when she was a minor. The other woman alleged that Strommen possessed digital images of her engaged in sexual activity when she was 17. Strommen pleaded not guilty to both charges.In the lower courts, the State of Montana sought to present the testimony of a sexual assault behavioral psychologist, Dr. Sheri Vanino, remotely via two-way video conferencing due to her unavailability to travel to Montana for the trial. The defense objected, asserting that personal in-court cross-examination was essential. The District Court granted the State's motion, allowing Dr. Vanino to testify remotely. The trial resulted in Strommen being found guilty of SIWC and sentenced to a 40-year prison term.In the Supreme Court of the State of Montana, Strommen appealed his conviction, arguing that the District Court erroneously allowed the State to present adverse expert testimony remotely via two-way video conferencing at trial. The Supreme Court agreed with Strommen, holding that the allowance of Dr. Vanino's remote testimony violated Strommen's fundamental right to personal face-to-face confrontation of adverse prosecution witnesses in the courtroom at trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and Mont. Const. art. II, § 24. The court reversed Strommen's conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Strommen" on Justia Law

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A group of plaintiffs, including former members of the Montana Board of Regents, faculty organizations, student groups, and individual students, challenged the constitutionality of three bills passed by the Montana Legislature in 2021. The bills in question were HB 349, which regulated student organizations and speech on campus; HB 112, known as the "Save Women's Sports Act," which required sports teams to be designated as male, female, or coed based on biological sex; and § 2 of SB 319, which revised campaign finance laws and regulated the funding of certain student organizations. The plaintiffs argued that these bills infringed on the constitutional authority of the Board of Regents to supervise, coordinate, manage, and control the Montana University System.The District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, Gallatin County, granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, declaring HB 349, HB 112, and § 2 of SB 319 unconstitutional. The court also denied the plaintiffs' request for attorney fees. Both parties appealed this order.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana affirmed the District Court's decision. The court found that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their claims and that the challenged bills were unconstitutional. The court also upheld the District Court's denial of the plaintiffs' request for attorney fees, as the justices could not reach a majority opinion on this issue. View "Barrett v. State" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around Kyle Severson, who was convicted for mitigated deliberate homicide after shooting Tyler Hayden. Severson, his girlfriend, her sister, and his daughter were at a convenience store when Hayden and Dalton Watson arrived. Hayden approached Severson's car, and Severson shot him, claiming he feared Hayden would harm him or his daughter. Severson was charged with deliberate homicide and later found guilty of mitigated deliberate homicide, resulting in a forty-year prison sentence.Severson appealed his conviction, arguing that the District Court erred in denying his motion to dismiss based on the State's failure to disclose favorable evidence and that the cumulative effect of errors in the District Court denied him a fair trial. The undisclosed evidence included law enforcement investigative reports of a burglary at Severson's home and the contents of Watson's cell phone.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana concluded that the cumulative effect of errors in the proceedings denied Severson his constitutional rights to a fair trial and due process. The court found that the prosecutor's misconduct and the State's failure to disclose certain evidence had a direct bearing on the credibility of the witnesses at trial. The court reversed Severson's conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Severson" on Justia Law

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The case involves a group of plaintiffs, including Forward Montana, Leo Gallagher, Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Gary Zadick, who challenged the constitutionality of two amendments to Senate Bill 319 (SB 319) passed by the Montana Legislature during the 2021 legislative session. The amendments, added during a closed-door committee meeting, were unrelated to the original subject of the bill, which was campaign finance. The plaintiffs argued that the amendments violated two sections of the Montana Constitution: Article V, Section 11(1), which requires that a law not be so altered or amended on its passage through the legislature as to change its original purpose, and Article V, Section 11(3), which requires that each bill contain only one subject, clearly expressed in its title.The District Court of the First Judicial District ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the amendments violated the aforementioned sections of the Montana Constitution. The court permanently enjoined the enforcement of the contested sections of SB 319. The State of Montana, the defendant in the case, did not appeal the decision, effectively acknowledging the unconstitutionality of the bill.The plaintiffs then sought attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine and the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA). The District Court denied the request, finding that the case was a "garden-variety" constitutional challenge undeserving of attorney fees under the doctrine. The court also denied fees under the UDJA, finding that the circumstances did not make fees equitable.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana reversed the District Court's decision, ruling that the plaintiffs were entitled to attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine. The court found that the plaintiffs had vindicated important constitutional rights and that private enforcement was necessary due to the State's defense of the unconstitutional law. The court remanded the case to the District Court for calculation of attorney fees. View "Forward Montana v. State" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Montana ruled on a case involving a dispute over a proposed ballot initiative related to reproductive rights. In the case, Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights and Samuel Dickman, M.D. (MSRR) sought a declaratory judgment arguing that the Attorney General’s proposed ballot statement for Constitutional Initiative 14 (CI-14) was argumentative, prejudicial, and inaccurate. MSRR also contended that their own proposed ballot statement was clear and impartial and should have been approved by the Attorney General.The court considered whether MSRR could challenge the Attorney General’s ballot statement under relevant statutes and whether the Attorney General had violated certain sections of the Montana Code Annotated by submitting an argumentative, prejudicial, and/or inaccurate ballot statement for CI-14 and by declining to approve MSRR’s proposed ballot statement.The court concluded that the Attorney General’s interpretation of the statute led to an absurd result that abrogated due process. Therefore, MSRR could challenge the Attorney General’s ballot statement under the relevant statutes. The court also found the Attorney General’s ballot statement for CI-14 failed to comply with statutory requirements as it did not fairly present the voters with what was proposed within the Initiative.However, the court disagreed with MSRR’s contention that the Attorney General was required to approve its ballot statement. The court concluded that while the Attorney General’s statement was deficient, he had the statutory authority to determine if MSRR's ballot statement complied with the requirements. The court then crafted a new ballot statement that complied with statutory requirements. View "Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights v. Knudsen" on Justia Law

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This case concerns the constitutionality of several Montana election laws. The plaintiffs, a variety of political and human rights organizations, sued the Montana Secretary of State, arguing that certain election laws were unconstitutional. The challenged laws included provisions restricting absentee voting, changing voter registration deadlines, banning paid absentee ballot collection, and revising voter ID requirements.The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's judgment, finding that each of the challenged statutes were unconstitutional. The Court held that the laws either impermissibly interfered with or minimally burdened the right to vote, a fundamental right under the Montana Constitution. The Court applied a strict scrutiny or a middle-tier analysis, depending on the extent of the burden on the right to vote, and determined that the state failed to show that the laws were the least onerous path to a compelling state interest or were reasonable and more important than the burden on the right to vote. The Court rejected the Secretary of State's argument that the laws were necessary for administrative efficiency and to ensure the integrity, reliability, and fairness of the election process. View "Democratic Party v. Jacobsen" on Justia Law

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In Montana, Robert Murray Gibbons was found guilty of driving under the influence, his fifth or subsequent offense. On appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, Gibbons raised three issues. First, he argued that the District Court incorrectly instructed the jury that he did not need to be conscious to be in actual physical control of his vehicle. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the instruction was consistent with the preventative purpose of the state's DUI statute.Second, Gibbons argued that the State’s rebuttal argument, which suggested that he could have introduced photographic evidence that was available to him during discovery, violated his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, concluding that the State was entitled to respond to Gibbons’ accusation that it had improperly withheld evidence.Finally, Gibbons challenged the constitutionality of the statute that imposed a mandatory minimum $5,000 fine for his offense, arguing that it did not take into account a defendant’s ability to pay. The Supreme Court agreed with Gibbons on this point, finding that the statute was facially unconstitutional because it required the imposition of a mandatory fine in every case without considering constitutionally required proportionality factors, such as the financial burden on the defendant and the defendant’s ability to pay.Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed Gibbons’s DUI conviction, but reversed the $5,000 fine and remanded the case to the District Court for recalculation of the fine in line with its opinion. View "State v. R. Gibbons" on Justia Law

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In this case, petitioners Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights and Samuel Dickman, M.D., sought a declaratory judgment on original jurisdiction against the Montana Attorney General and the Montana Secretary of State. The petitioners argued that the Attorney General wrongly determined that their proposed ballot issue was legally insufficient, had no authority to attach a fiscal statement to the ballot issue, and that their ballot statements complied with Montana Code Annotated sections 13-27-212 and -213.The Supreme Court of Montana held that the Attorney General did err in concluding that the proposed ballot issue was legally insufficient, as it did not violate the separate-vote requirement of Article XIV, Section 11, of the Montana Constitution. The proposal effects a single change to the Montana Constitution on a single subject: the right to make decisions about one's own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.The court also found that the Attorney General exceeded his authority by appending a fiscal statement to the proposed ballot issue because the budget director's fiscal note did not indicate that the issue would have a fiscal impact.Finally, the court declined to rule on the compliance of the petitioners’ ballot statements with Montana Code Annotated sections 13-27-212 and -213, directing the Attorney General to prepare a ballot statement in line with statutory requirements and forward it to the Montana Secretary of State.The court essentially concluded that the proposed ballot issue was legally sufficient and did not require separate votes for its multiple components, as they were all closely related to the central issue of reproductive rights. The court also confirmed that the Attorney General had overstepped his authority by attaching a fiscal statement to the ballot issue. View "Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights v. Knudsen" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of Montana overturned the conviction of Daniel Christopher Rowe for sexual assault, a felony. Rowe was initially charged with the offense for multiple instances of abuse that allegedly took place over several years against H.B., who was under sixteen years of age at the time of the offenses. The case was remanded for a new trial due to two significant issues.First, the court found the lower court erred in admitting a subsequent uncharged act of sexual assault as proof of motive or plan to commit the earlier sexual assaults charged under a "common scheme." The court reasoned that the State had charged Rowe with a non-existent offense not recognized under Montana law, which led to the improper admission of other bad acts evidence.Second, the court found that the lower court erred in giving the jury both conduct-based and result-based definitions of "knowingly" for the sexual assault charge without specifying to the jury which definition applied to which elements of the offense. The court determined that this lowered the State's burden of proof, which violated Rowe's right to due process. The Supreme Court of Montana reversed Rowe's sexual assault conviction and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "State v. Rowe" on Justia Law