Montana Constitution Survives GOP Legislative Assaults

They say even the blackest clouds can have a silver lining. In the case of the recent legislative session that appears to be true — at least for Montana’s internationally-lauded Constitution.

Despite having a historic supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, not one of the 50 original bill draft requests for constitutional amendments passed. Not one — and that’s good news for Montanans and our state. The harsh attacks against our Inalienable Right to Individual Dignity and Right of Privacy remain standing, as does our right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

It’s not hard to recall the former GOP Montana legislator, Derek Skees, who claimed Montana’s Constitution was a “socialist rag.” Skees’ political ambitions ground to a halt after that baseless claim and one might have thought his fellow Republicans would realize targeting our constitutional rights was a losing proposition.

Take, for instance, the phony amendment attempting to constitutionally enshrine the “right to trap” — as if that was somehow a pressing concern for most Montanans. The concept, as brought by Republican Rep. Paul Fielder, was not only rife with problems, it was totally unnecessary since Montanans already have the constitutional right to hunt and fish. Despite numerous amendments, it did not meet the final vote tally to pass.

What’s even stranger is the post-session blather about how none of the proposed constitutional referendums were either a concern for Montanans or seriously considered by the GOP supermajority.

Senate President Jason Ellsworth claimed the tidal wave of citizen concern expressed in the media across the state were actually “lies” by Democrat messaging. But before anyone believes anything Ellsworth says about lies, it’s worth remembering this is the guy who hassled the Highway Patrol because they pulled him over for significantly exceeding the speed limit — and then told the trooper he couldn’t be stopped or cited because the Constitution provides “immunity” from arrest “during attendance at sessions of the Legislature.” Except the Legislature was not in session when he was busted.

Or how about the conflicting post-session comments given to the press? The Senate Majority Leader says they “spent very little time in leadership talking about constitutional amendments” which he says were “a distraction.” But that’s not what House Majority Leader Sue Vinton had to say. She told reporters the Republican caucus spent a great deal of time discussing the proposed referendums, adding: “…there was a great discussion, and generally much agreement, much more agreement than disagreement on any of those issues.”

Obviously, you can’t have it both ways. Then again, recall the precipitous end of the session, in which the Senate basically said “sayonara” and left town. But as the House was still considering a number of unresolved bills —  including those dealing with the State Hospital — it speaks volumes about the House and Senate relationship.

That our Constitution withstood these assaults is already proving its worth. Helena District Judge Mike Menahan was blunt in issuing an injunction halting the first of five new laws attacking women’s right to control their own bodies and make their own decisions about childbirth writing it “impermissibly infringes on Montanans’ constitutional right[s]” of privacy and equal protection that “will result in immediate, grave health consequences for Medicaid-eligible Montanans seeking abortion care.”

It’s no secret the Republican supermajorities showed little concern for our state’s Constitution, even going so far as preventing Montanans from observing their actions while in session. But they’re gone now, and our Constitution still stands and will, undoubtedly, prove the foil for so many of their pernicious laws. That’s very good news for Montana — and we’d do well to remember come next election cycle.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.