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Judge dismisses governor’s lawsuit against the state Legislature

By   /   December 29, 2010  /   No Comments

A District Court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed against the Legislature in September by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who claimed a bill was unconstitutional.

First Judicial District Court Judge Kathy Seeley said, “While (the governor) alleges that the Legislature’s actions in passing HB 676 (in 2009) ‘limited’ his veto power, and his brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss asserts that his ‘constitutional veto power was essentially nullified’ and ‘effectively invalidated’ by the Legislature’s actions, the fact is that his veto power was never in jeopardy. Instead, he chose not to exercise it and not to sign the bill, both of which were legitimate options.”

Sarah J. Elliot, communications director for the governor, said: “We questioned the constitutionality of the bill and the judge didn’t disagree with us on that. The Montana legislature shouldn’t act like Congress and should not send us unconstitutional bills.”

On Sept. 16, the governor sued the Legislature and members of its Senate Finance and Claims and House Appropriations committees. He asked the court to declare House Bill 676 unconstitutional. It was a companion bill to HB2, which is the major appropriations act.

 Schweitzer let HB676 become law without his signature in May 2009.

The Legislature asked the lawsuit be dismissed, adding the governor had not acted in a timely manner.

Legislative Services Director Susan Byorth Fox said the state spent $22,000 through November to be represented by the Great Falls laws firm of Ugrin, Alexander, Zadick and Higgins. She said that figure may increase by as much as $8,000 in the final billing. She said the Legislature Services Division sought outside help because state staff is intended for legislative purposes and not litigation.

“We are bill drafters,” she said. “Our job is legislation, we are not litigators.”

At one time Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings and Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, met with Schweitzer and asked him to withdraw the suit,

“We are very pleased with the judge’s decision,” Himmelberger said Wednesday, “Certainly not only for the Legislative branch, but more importantly for taxpayers of Montana.”

He said the Legislature believed the lawsuit was not necessary.

“We think it’s a win-win all the way around,” he said.

Himmelberger said lawmakers thought they had done as much as they could to avoid litigation.

He said he hoped that from now on that both branches would try to communicate more effectively.

“I am hopeful something like this can be avoided in future,” he said.

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Phil Drake