Montana Court Records

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How Does the Montana District Court Work?

Montana District Courts are trial courts granted original jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases under Article VII, Section 4 of the Montana Constitution. The District Court hears cases beyond the inferior courts’ limited jurisdiction and may review administrative agencies’ decisions. Montana’s 56 District Courts are organized into 22 judicial districts. The Supreme Court appoints a chief judge as the administrative head of each judicial district.

While smaller District courts handle all types of case, larger District courts are divided into divisions by:

  • Criminal Division: This division of the District Court hears criminal cases. Cases include offenses regarded felonies and misdemeanors under the Montana Criminal Code.
  • Civil Division: The civil division is responsible for resolving small claims and non-criminal actions, including class action suits and personal torts under the Montana Code of Civil Procedure.
  • Family Division: The family division of the District Court resolves suits about divorce, child support, custody, and visitation, termination of parental rights, and adoption.
  • Juvenile Division: This division handles cases involving juvenile delinquency, such as offenses committed minors.

Montana District courts have the highest workload in the state. According to statistical reports, Montana District courts process an average of 60,000 cases annually. Cases in District courts begin by filing a complaint with the Clerk of District Court. Most cases go through several stages before proceeding to trial, and the timeline of a case depends on its complexity. For example, according to the judiciary’s 2018 report, District Courts take an average of 730 days to resolve civil suits and an average of 270 days to resolve criminal cases and family cases.

Generally, the court may order litigants to go through arbitration before a case proceeds to trial. The parties may also arrive at a plea bargain. These methods help conserve the judiciary’s limited resources, ensure that the court serves justice quickly, and allow the judiciary to handle other cases efficiently. A court trial is the last resort when litigants have exhausted all the judiciary means to resolve the case. In this case, the court will schedule a date for preliminary hearings and oral arguments, jury deliberations, and sentencing or judgment.

When a party is dissatisfied with the District Court ruling, the party may appeal to the Supreme Court. Appealing involves obtaining a leave to appeal from the District court. The court will consider the merits of the petition under criteria established in Section 808.03(2) of the state’s statutes.

There must be 46 District Court judges in Montana, according to Section 3–5–102 of the Montana Code Annotated. These judges are selected in nonpartisan elections to serve the first term of eight years and may earn reelection for six years. Judges may serve for unlimited terms unless incapacitated or removed from office by:

  • Impeachment: This begins when a two-thirds vote convicts two-thirds of the house votes for impeachment and the senate’s justice.
  • Disciplinary action: The Supreme Court may suspend or remove a judge based on the judicial standards commission (JSC). This action begins when the JSC investigates complaints about the misconduct or unethical conduct of a judge.

If a Justice is incapacitated or removed from office, the governor may appoint an interim judge to hold the office for the remainder of the unexpired term. The appointment begins when the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission presents three to five nominees to the governor, who must fill the vacancy within 30 days of nomination. However, if the governor does not select a nominee within the specified window, the Chief Justice will appoint the interim Justice. In either case, the appointment must follow confirmation by the senate.

Generally, judgeship candidates must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Must be a citizen of the United States
  • Must have resided in the state at least two years before taking office
  • Must have been admitted to practice law in Montana for at least five years before the date of appointment or election
  • Must reside within the state during the term(s) of office
  • Cannot hold any other elected office of public service
  • Must abide by the canons of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct

To access District court records, interested individuals must visit the Clerk of District Court office in the county where the Clerk filed the case. The Montana Open Records Law directs the Clerk to make the record available for public perusal unless a court order or statute has sealed such document. In this case, the individual must present a court order granting access to that specific record. Either way, the requester must provide the necessary information to facilitate the search and cover the costs of searching, reproducing, and certifying the document.

A full list of the location and contact information of the 56 District Courts in Montana can be found using the Court Locator tool on the Montana Judicial Branch website.

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