Should legislatures be able to overturn court decisions on a 2/3rds vote? The Montana experience

Welcome State Bar of Michigan Blog readers!

I noted yesterday the litany of bills introduced in New Jersey to allow two-thirds of that state’s legislature to override court decisions. Not a single one of those bills reached a committee hearing. Not so in Montana.

Montana

SB 397 (2005) / SB 334 (2009) / SB 323 (2011)

A decision of the Montana supreme court invalidating one or more statutes or parts of statutes may be overturned by a bill that is approved by a vote of at least two-thirds of the members of each house of the legislature and that is signed by the governor. The bill must specifically state the statutes or parts of statutes invalidated by the decision being overturned.

When first introduced in 2005, the amendment was part of a package of bills all introduced by Republican Sen. Joe Balyeat, including

  • SB 391 – sets term limits for judges similar or equal to that of state legislators (“If legislators want to legislate from the bench, they should be treated like legislators”)
  • SB 392 – sets  judicial pay as equal to that of legislators (“‘Legislating’ judges should be paid the same low rate…”)
  • SB 393 – ends nonpartisan races for judicial office
  • SB 394 – ends requirement judges be lawyers
  • SB 395 – elects supreme court by district, rather than statewide
  • SB 396 – sets supreme court campaign contribution limit as same a legislator
  • SB 398 – allows judges to be recalled from office for their decisions
  • SB 399 – applies open meetings law to judiciary
  • SB 400 – requires suits against legislature be brought in district of House Speaker or Senate President, rather than the capital

According to Sen. Balyeat’s 2005 testimony (no audio/video, minutes here) the Montana Supreme Court had failed to exercise “restraint” in various cases and was functioning as a “super legislature”. As in the New Jersey instance, court rulings on school funding were cited as a reason for the need to allow for an override of state supreme court decisions. Other proponents argued “it would put the people back in charge instead of the Court.” Ultimately, SB 397 was tabled on a 7-5 vote.

The bill returned in 2009 as SB 334. In his written testimony, which replicated the 2005 testimony almost identically, Sen. Balyeat had dropped all the other proposals except legislative override, supreme court election by district, and for suits against legislature to be brought in district of the House Speaker or Senate President, rather than the capital. This time the committee tied 6-6 on the bill and then voted 9-3 to table it. The audio (there was no video) is below. Note this exchange at about the 12:55 mark between Republican Senate Judiciary Vice-Chair Jim Shockley and Sen. Balyeat:

Sen. Shockley: Further questions? No. Just one from me Senator Balyeat. In effect, this is a constitutional, this allows the legislature in conjunction with the governor to amend the constitution, that’s basically it, right?

Sen. Balyeat: Um. Pretty close, yes. Although, it would also be limited to, with respect to a particular statute. Ok?

Sen. Shockley: Right. So it only says “Statute X is unconstitutional” we would in effect change the constitution so that that statute would be effective. So, we amend the constitution.

Sen. Balyeat: With respect to that narrow statutory provision.

Sen. Shockley: Thank you.

The third attempt at legislative override was in 2011 (SB 323). The same written testimony was once again submitted. This time the vote was 4-8 against legislative override (minutes here, audio here).

Should small claims limits be increased? Minnesota in 2011 says maybe.

Earlier in the week I posted video of Maryland’s 2011 effort to increase its small claims court jurisdiction. Ultimately that bill was rejected in committee.

Minnesota’s efforts fared better. Several attempts were made to increase the current limitation of their “conciliation court” from its current $7,500/$4,000 if the case involves a consumer credit transaction ($7,500/$4,000).

In the Senate, SB 506 as introduced increased conciliation court jurisdiction to $15,000/ $7,500. It was amended up in committee to $20,000/$10,000. SB 506 was approved 65-0 in the Minnesota Senate. Meanwhile, its House counterpart (HB 868) was approved by the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee on May 9. The House committee amended their version to provide for a lower increase than the Senate, only opting for a jump to $10,000/$7,500. Similar efforts and amounts were found in an omnibus torts bill  (HB 211 / SB 149).

The Senate bills passed in their chamber of origin but failed to progress through the House before adjournment.

Although none of the 4 bills ultimately were adopted, the testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on April 18, 2011 gives an overview of the discussion and debate over the issue.

Part 1

Part 2

Should small claims limits be increased? Maryland in 2011 says no.

Since the ongoing economic downturn, courts are finding their civil dockets flooded with cases involving debts and broken contracts. Perhaps it is this that has inspired the unprecedented level of interest in changing the small claims jurisdiction of state courts.

In its 2011 session, the Maryland General Assembly considered raising the existing limit from $5,000 to $10,000. Although ultimately rejected, this video is testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on February 16, 2011 on the subject gives a fairly broad overview of the pros and cons.

Proponents’ Testimony

Opponents’ Testimony

Arkansas increases penalties on filing false liens on judges and court personnel

Unfortunately, it is not at all uncommon for litigants to retaliate against the judges and court staff in their case by filing liens or similar documents against personal property and assets. I blogged about the practice earlier this year. This potentially means years of credit and legal woes. In 2011, Arkansas’ legislature adopted HB 1045 to increase from a misdemeanor to a felony the filing of such documents. The following video shows the House activity on the bill (there was no Senate audio or video that I could find).

Should Clerks of Court be elected on partisan ballots? Maryland debates the issue.

This week marks the annual meeting of the National Association for Court Management, including clerks of court and court administrators from around the nation. Among attendees are clerks of court, some elected by local voters and some appointed by the court.

While much attention has been paid to selection of judges, much activity occurred in 2011 on the subject of whether clerks should be elected and, if so, how. Bills in Arkansas (HB 1417), Maryland (HB 955), Oklahoma (HB 1307, SB 139, SB 181, SB 205, SB 327), Oregon (HB 3638), and South Carolina (HB 3134) all considering making the races for clerk of court nonpartisan elections.

The Maryland House Ways and Means Committee debated the subject on March 8 of this year, with both proponents and opponents of the bill making their cases. Video of the hearing is below.

One note on the video: Registers of wills are the clerks of Maryland Orphans‘ Courts under the state’s Constitution (Art. IV, § 41) and statute (Estates and Trusts Code 2-208).

Part 1 (Proponents)

Part 2 (Opponents)