The Montana Supreme Court ruled today that Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl's term has expired, but he can remain in office until a successor is found.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit that claimed Motl is entitled to a full six-year term ending in 2019, and not the Jan. 1 expiration date set by Gov. Steve Bullock and confirmed by the Montana Senate. Republican legislative leaders for the past month have been seeking Motl's removal from the office amid the dispute, and at one point tried to cut off the commissioner's pay.
Even though the 5-0 ruling by the high court upheld the term set by Bullock and the Senate, Motl said he was pleased with the ruling.
"It doesn't unduly interfere with the Legislature's power, but it clearly states a commissioner serves with the full authority of office until the Senate confirms a replacement," Motl said.
The commissioner, responsible for making sure campaign, ethics and lobbying laws are followed, is one of the most highly charged political appointments in the state. Three commissioners were appointed and left the office between 2011 and 2013, when Motl was appointed by Bullock, a Democrat.
Republicans have accused Motl of being on a "witch hunt" against GOP elected officials after the commissioner found at least nine Republican candidates violated campaign laws by colluding with an anti-union organization. Motl's backers point out that he has pursued cases against officials of both parties and that he cleared a backlog of campaign complaints that went back for years.
The lawsuit filed in December argued that Motl's 2013 appointment creates a new six-year term that should expire in mid-2019. Opponents countered that Motl was filling the unexpired term of Jennifer Hensley, who was appointed in 2011 but not confirmed.
The Supreme Court did not address that issue, saying that it is undisputed that Bullock appointed Motl to a term that ended on Jan. 1, and the Senate confirmed that date. That ending date was not questioned until 10 days before the term's expiration, when the lawsuit was filed.
"Under these circumstances, it would be inappropriate for this Court to interfere with the Governor's express appointment and the Senate's confirmation of that appointment," the order written by Justice Beth Baker said.
However, the order continued, Montana law requires Motl remain in office until a successor is "appointed and qualified." Motl and plaintiffs' attorney Jim Goetz said that means commissioner can remain until the Senate confirms a replacement.
"We're happy that they ruled he could hold over," Goetz said. "We're disappointed because Jon didn't get a full six-year term, because he's been a very effective commissioner."
Bullock said in a statement that the court's ruling provides clarity on the issue.
"Montana has greatly benefited from Commissioner Motl's experience and work ethic, and I will now move forward in appointing a Commissioner for a new, full term to this critically important position," Bullock said.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said the court's swift ruling will allow the Senate to confirm a new commissioner during the current 90-day session. Two people have submitted applications to replace Motl: his chief legal counsel, Jamie MacNaughton, and former Billings city commissioner Michael Larson.
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