HELENA — Republicans in the Montana Senate Friday rejected the confirmation of a state district judge in Great Falls appointed last year by former Gov. Steve Bullock, clearing the way for Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to make his first appointment to the state bench.=
The Senate voted 28-22 against the confirmation of District Judge Michele Levine, who had been appointed last fall by Bullock, a Democrat. All of the votes against her came from Republicans.
GOP senators said they opposed Levine’s confirmation because of her background as a Democratic state legislator a decade ago and activism on behalf of environmental groups.
“She has been a political activist, she’s been a strong supporter of Democratic candidates and progressive organizations throughout her career,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings. “It’s not just inherent bias, it’s a pressure to appease these type of groups.
Levine will have to step down and leave a vacancy that will be filled by Gianforte’s appointment – and, possibly not subject to Senate confirmation until 2023.
Democrats castigated their GOP colleagues for making Levine the first casualty in their quest to politicize the judiciary and make it lean more conservative.
Republicans also passed a law earlier this session to give Gianforte broader authority to choose and appoint new judges to fill vacancies on the state bench and Supreme Court.
“It is clearly a move to replace judges and to challenge the credibility and the objectivity of the Supreme Court and our district judges and the judicial nominating process,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “And, to replace them with people who do have a political, ideological bent that’s more in line with the conservative end of the Republican and the governor.”
Yet, earlier Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Republicans, did recommend confirmation of one of former Gov. Bullock’s three judicial appointees last year – District Judge Peter Ohman in Bozeman.
Still, the panel has yet to act on another Bullock appointee, District Judge Christopher Abbott of Helena. If the panel and Senate take no action on Abbott, he, too will have to step down and leave a vacancy for Gianforte to fill.
When Sands on Friday asked committee chair Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, when the panel would vote on Abbott’s confirmation, he would say only “not today.”
McGillvray said during the committee meeting that Republicans are looking for “independent-minded individual(s) with a track record as being such,” he said.
Levine’s appointment was “doomed to failure because it was so biasedly partisan,” he added.
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 the new law that got rid of commission that for 50 years had vetted applicants and forwarded finalists to the governor.
Now, Gianforte can appoint whichever legally qualified person he chooses, to fill judicial vacancies.
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.
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.