This is part 2 of an investigative series into corruption in the Montana judiciary. For the rest of the investigation click here.
The Montana judiciary has been exposed by The Wall Street Journal and several local Montana news organizations, after internal emails revealed they’ve been dealing behind closed doors to kill legislation that would make them more accountable to the people they serve.
After it was revealed that judicial interference killed House Bill 685, which would have appointed a citizen oversight board to look into judicial corruption, the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Brad Tschida (R-HD97), sat down with PJ Media to talk about the growing scandal in his state.
“I think [the email leak] gave a lot of substance and credibility to the people who are behind the bill,” Tschida said, referring to the citizen-led organization called the Montana State Council On Judicial Accountability (MTSCOJA). “We are pursuing some action to make the judiciary more accountable.”
Tschida, who is running for state Senate after serving four terms as a representative in the House, is not going to let HB685 die without a fight. “That bill died in process. If I’m elected, that will be a bill that will be reintroduced to the Senate,” he promised. “All the Democrats who are saying we can’t get involved in judicial affairs are wrong. They’re in our business all the time! We can say, ‘stay in your lane.’ We’re going to do the things we are supposed to do, because the legislative branch makes laws that affect the executive and the judicial and the legislature. That’s our responsibility,” emphasized Tschida.
Now that the news has gone national, and Justice Roberts just came out with his yearly report stating that judicial ethics is a problem, more and more state lawmakers are taking notice.
“What we’re seeing in Montana is a very, very strong indication, and examples of a system that does not have any accountability,” Tschida remarked.
Protected by the sad lack of accountability is the Judicial Standards Commission, which has a miserable conviction rate and tosses 98% of all complaints made against judges.
“I think, out of more than 100 [complaints], there were four or so that received any kind of a response or oversight, and only one received any kind of penalty, and that penalty was slightly more than a slap on the wrist,” Tschida revealed.
Revelations that the Supreme Court was using a lobbyist to work against his bill upset the representative. “There’s a big difference between what we’re all supposed to do and what we do, and the integrity of folks doing the right thing when nobody is watching. We need to have an impartial, unbiased judiciary.”
The engaged citizens in the MTSCOJA, who have been vilified by the judiciary for lobbying for HB685, say that members of the BAR regularly insult and gaslight them, calling them “crazy” and ignoring their requests for fairness. But Tschida doesn’t see the victims in Montana as crazy.
“I try to put myself in the position of the people that come to me with problems like this,” he said. “In this particular case, the judicial branch has turned a deaf ear to the people. There are numerous cases where people have been found guilty of crimes that they should not have been found guilty of, simply because somebody had a bias in a particular case and did not recuse themselves or did not find someone else to oversee the matter. We have to take action.”
Bart Crabtree, President of MTSCOJA, says he suffered one of these false convictions and has dedicated his life to forming the first Conviction Integrity Unit in Montana to right the false conviction rate in the state.
Tschida says the key to cleaning up the problem starts with changing the Judicial Standards Commission. “This particular bill was one that was introduced so that we can change the makeup of the Judicial Standards Commission so that it more accurately reflects the makeup of the population.” In other words, judges should not be in charge of overseeing other judges any more than any government entity should investigate itself when there is alleged wrongdoing.
“I believe if I take ten citizens who don’t know each other and put them together in a room, I believe collectively that they have more wisdom and insight than anybody out there. Matters dealing with the judiciary should not be up to members of one group,” Tschida told PJ Media.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath was caught in an email saying he didn’t want HB685 to pass because “the problem here is it allows a citizen’s commission to discipline or remove judges.” Tschida doesn’t think that argument has any merit.
“My gracious,” he said. “If not the people, then who? Because you guys can’t do your job, so, if a body of the everyday people is not going to do it, then who will?” asked Tschida.
“I think it comes down to power,” he said. “I think the world operates on three basic human desires or urges; sex, money, and power. Power is an aphrodisiac that they don’t want to surrender. Plus, I think that they have this sense that they’re above other people.”
Tschida is reticent to introduce new legislation and takes a conservative approach to new laws. “I’m not real big on introducing legislation. That was not what I was elected for. I was elected to try to shore up the laws we already have on the books,” he said. “We have plenty of laws. We need to make sure that they’re enforced.” But HB685 is a clearly needed piece of legislation that will stop the judiciary from acting in such an uncontrolled manner and make them think twice before violating the code of ethics. A panel of regular Joes and Janes isn’t going to belong to the same country club as the black-robed cabal, and they aren’t going to hand out mere wrist-slaps to bad judges. Montana’s citizens want bad judges removed from the bench. HB685 would give the public the ability to do that.
“In Billings, there was a case where a judge gave a deferred sentence to a gentleman who raped a 14-year-old girl, and the defense attorney said, ‘Well, she acted much older.’ And that was the basis upon which the judge let him off,” he said. “Victims of crimes should not be subjected to the kinds of treatment that we saw out of that particular case. and there’s a lot of these kinds of cases.”
In that case, District Judge Todd Baugh actually made comments about the victim, saying she was “older than her chronological age” and had control over the events that led to her rape by a trusted teacher. His comments stirred public outrage and calls for his removal.
Tschida says that the path forward to accountability is very hopeful for the upcoming 2022 election, and he sees positive signs that Republicans to take a majority in the Montana House and the Senate. “If we can get a majority, we have a governor who will sign bills.” Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is the first Republican governor of Montana in sixteen years. “We have a very outstanding chance of moving this legislation across both houses and into the governor’s office,” said Tschida, sounding excited.
“I dislike being in the political realm because of the day-to-day garbage,” he said. “But when you get to meet the kind of people that I have, who would do anything for you — we have some great people in Montana, and yeah, we’ve got some people who need to be shook up, too, and be held accountable, but we are going to continue to do that,” he said. “When you have the right people in office serving, you’re going to have good results.”
Author’s note: Tschida, it should be noted, is the first state representative to go on the record and answer every question put to him about the court corruption plaguing the country. And he’s the first representative I’ve found who put his name and weight behind a bill that would try to right the ship. The Republican legislators in Missouri, who as of yet have done nothing to help the victims of their judicial scandal, should pay attention to Rep. Tschida’s approach. It would be wonderful to be able to publish such an in-depth interview with a Missouri rep who would put his or her name on “Mikaela’s Law,” which would remove immunity from court-appointed officials and bring accountability to the cottage industry sucking Missouri families dry. But, alas, there isn’t one elected representative to praise in Missouri, as none of them have sponsored the bill. What a shame!
UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that Judge Baugh was not disciplined. After months of public protest, the Supreme Court censured him with 31 days of unpaid leave. Baugh did not seek re-election and is no longer on the bench.