Lawsuit aims to keep Montana’s top political cop in office two more years

December 21, 2016 GMT

HELENA – The outgoing secretary of state, former state lawmakers and several others are preparing to sue Gov. Steve Bullock to keep Montana’s top political cop in office another two years.

Christine Kaufmann, a former Democratic state senator from Helena, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a group called Montanans for Experienced Judges, former Republican Rep. Jesse O’Hara and Montana Trial Lawyers Association executive director Al Smith are bringing the suit in Lewis and Clark County District Court.

They argue that Jonathan Motl, the commissioner of political practices, started his own term in 2013. Commissioners who are confirmed by the state Senate serve six-year terms. What’s unclear is if Motl started his own term or assumed the term of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s appointed Jennifer Hensley, who was appointed in 2011 but not approved by the state Senate in that year’s legislative session.

Schweitzer then appointed David Gallik, who resigned in 2012 and whose appointment was never the subject of a Senate vote. After that, Schweitzer appointed Jim Murry, who was also not voted on by the 2013 Senate.

The plaintiffs argue that means neither Hensley, Gallik or Murry served a term as commissioner.

Motl was appointed by Bullock in a May 17, 2013 letter, which said the end of his term was Jan. 1, 2017. The Senate in the 2015 legislative session confirmed Motl.

The plaintiffs ask for the court to keep Motl in place and say that resolution of the matter is important given the “partisan wrangling and legislative manipulation” the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices is often subject to. They add the failure of the Legislature to approve appointees between 2010 and 2013 erodes public confidence in the office.

Motl told the Bozeman Chronicle earlier this year he expects his term to expire at year’s end.

This story will be updated.