Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) After twice rejecting legislation this year that aimed to allow groups of Montanans to form their own grand juries, most lawmakers have not warmed to the idea in the seven months since those bills were tabled.

The Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee voted 5-3 Wednesday morning to recommend that Ballot Initiative #8, proposed by Bart Crabtree, should not be placed on next year’s ballot. Crabtree is with the Montana Citizens Council on Judicial Accountability, a group that has targeted Montana’s judiciary after court losses and pushed a similar measure that was quickly rejected during this year’s legislative session.

Committee Chair Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, and Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, were the three members who voted to recommend it for the ballot. Sen. Regier told the committee he felt like whether or not individual members supported the idea behind the initiative, they should let Montana voters have the ultimate say.

Sens. John Esp, R-Big Timber; Chris Friedel, R-Billings; and Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, voted against recommending it for the ballot, along with Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, and Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte.

Should the measure gather enough signatures to make next year’s ballot, the question will show that a majority of the members of a legislative interim committee felt the measure should not have been sent to voters in the first place.

The Attorney General’s Office has already found Ballot Issue #8 to be legally sufficient, and Wednesday’s legislative hearing on the proposed issue is a step installed by lawmakers hoping to have more of a say in what issues are presented to voters at the ballot box.

Issue #8 aims to amend the constitution to allow a certain number of voters in each county to summon a grand jury to pursue their own allegations. A person would have to gather signatures from 0.5% of a county’s registered voters, plus 100 more signatures from eligible voters in the county, in order to impanel a grand jury.

“The grand jury is the body of truth and power, inferior to no one but the legislature itself, which is, of course, we know, ‘We the People,’” said Crabtree. “A grand jury, the bottom line, is the people’s law enforcement, and we as citizens of Montana have a fundamental state and U.S. constitutional right of access to a grand jury, and it’s a tool available to very Montana citizen. Or at least it should be.”

During the legislative session this past spring, two bills sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls — House Bill 405 and House Bill 589 — that would have allowed citizens to form their own grand juries were quickly tabled by lawmakers after their first committee hearings. Language of both mirrored a failed 2010 initiative.

At one of the bill hearings in March, Brian Thompson, representing the Montana County Attorneys’ Association, said such a law would turn into “an inquisition” rather than a protection for citizens.

He spoke to the committee on behalf of the association again Wednesday, opposing the proposal and saying there were still several problems with it.

Thompson said the threshold is too low for citizens to form a grand jury – it would take just 100-200 citizens in some counties to do so – and that the current system, in which prosecutors and the attorney general can charge people by criminal information, and a district court determines whether there is probable cause to move forward with the case.

A district judge can also convene a grand jury when they consider the use of one to be “in the public interest,” according to statute. In federal courts, grand juries are often used to decide whether the evidence prosecutors present to them warrants an indictment or no action.

Most of the proponents of the ballot measure who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting said they felt a citizens grand jury would allow them to hold allegedly “corrupt” politicians and judges accountable for perceived misdoings.

“This will happen in Montana whether this committee votes on it or not,” Shelley Lustman of Kalispell told the committee. “This exercise today is to document who will honor their oath of office and who will not. Checks and balances are required. Choose wisely.”

Julianne Burkhardt, the staff attorney for the committee, explained that even if the measure were to make the ballot and be approved by voters, it would only be an initial step, and more statute would have to be written to facilitate the process.

Now that the interim committee has voted whether to recommend the issue for the ballot, the Secretary of State’s Office will prepare the final petition for signature gathering. Proponents will have until June 21 to gather signatures equal to 10% of the number of votes cast in the 2020 governor’s election – 603,587 votes – including from 10% of the voters in each of the 40 state House districts.