Senate bill 154
The state Senate voted in a second reading on Wednesday for a bill that would make state law stating that the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy does not include guarantees of access to an abortion.
Abortion up to the point of viability of a fetus is legal in Montana, as clarified by the Supreme Court’s Armstrong decision nearly a quarter century ago, which held that the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy includes access to abortion. When federal protections for abortion fell last summer, when the US Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade with his Dobbs order overturned, it was Armstrong who ensured continued access in Montana. That has made overturning the verdict a key target for anti-abortion advocates.
The bill comes from Kalispell Republican Senator Keith Regier, who said he thought the court misinterpreted the meaning of the word “individual” before the word “privacy” in the Constitution, and said advances in the Science “make it clear that abortion is not an individual act.”
“It’s a different DNA, it’s a different set of fingerprints, it’s a different person,” Regier said in the Senate.
Regier’s bill is not a constitutional referendum that would ask voters to change the state constitution. It also would not change access to abortion, but would aim to break the Armstrong roadblock through state legislation.
Six Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the law. These included Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, who said while her voting record showed she was “personally adamant against life,” she felt the law would be unconstitutional if enacted. At a committee hearing earlier this month, opponents said that while it is the job of the legislature to create laws, the bill would transcend the judiciary’s role in interpreting laws and the constitution when challenged.
Sen. John Fuller, a Whitefish Republican, cited the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in support of the bill, saying “to deprive a person of his life without trial” was a violation of that amendment.
But Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Missoula Democrat, reiterated the argument that the bill “is patently unconstitutional and will face trial,” adding that she thinks it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.
After Wednesday’s 28-21 second reading vote, the bill faces another vote before moving to the House of Representatives.
House bill 172
A proposal to allow counties to mirror the state’s post-election scrutiny process for local elections will be brought to the Senate after it easily vacated the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
It’s one of two actions that emerged from an informal, bipartisan task force that has since met to discuss election misinformation and make suggestions for increasing Montana’s election security.
The state currently requires that districts using ballot machines must hand-count a random selection of districts and races after the election to verify the totals reported by the tab. Currently, this process only takes place after a general election, but HB172 would allow counties to choose whether to review local election results as well.
It vacated the House with broad bipartisan support, 81-19.
House bill 37
A bill that was heavily amended in committee and would require arrest warrants if a child is removed from their home by child protection services in some cases, passed a first vote in the House of Representatives by a 100-0 vote on Wednesday.
The bill is the result of almost two years of work by lawmakers and others involved in child protection services between the 2021 legislative session and this one.
The bill is borne by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Churchill.
Rep. Casey Knudsen, the only no vote on the bill when it approved committee earlier this month, said he only objected to the bill because it was changed so much in committee, but said it was now agree with that.
An amendment earlier changed the bill from stating that emergency deportations without a warrant could only occur if a child was at risk of sexual abuse or serious physical harm to a threshold of sexual abuse and physical abuse.
The bill was also amended to remove the need for law enforcement to be present for some types of moves.
Carlson said on the House floor on Wednesday that the changes made the law better because it was palatable to pass and still protects children and families. The bill is part of a series of bills going through the system to examine child protection services in Montana.
A final vote is expected Thursday before the bill goes to the Senate.
Judicial Standards Commission appointments
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard on Wednesday about the appointment of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to the board that hears complaints against judges.
The appointments to the Judicial Standards Commission are two former Republican lawmakers: Seth Berglee, formerly of Joliet, and Roger Webb of Billings.
Given the conflict between Republicans and the judiciary in the 2021 session, the picks had the potential to spark controversy. When GOP lawmakers attempted to subpoena court documents to investigate claims of inappropriateness, those efforts were shot down by the courts. Judges are only disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission, several courts have ruled.
However, Bruce Spencer, a lobbyist for the Montana Judges Association, told the committee Wednesday the judiciary supports the appointments primarily because of their affiliation.
“I know the Legislature has questions and concerns about the Justice Standards Commission and now you have two members on the Commission to go to. I challenge you to do so,” Spencer told the committee. “We need this system to work. We want it to work. We think it’s working for now, but if these two lawmakers in the commission can give you more information about the commission, I’m all for it.”
The committee will vote shortly to recommend that the Senate approve or deny the appointments. Democrats have expressed some skepticism about the qualifications of the nominations, but Republicans, who control the committee, showed no signs of opposing the nominations at Wednesday’s hearing.