Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle join groups challenging Marsy’s Law

July 24, 2017

Great Falls Tribune

Seaborn Larson, slarson@greatfallstribune.

Two more daily newspapers on Monday joined litigation challenging CI-116, known primarily as Marsy’s law, which was set to take effect on July 1.

The Great Falls Tribune and Bozeman Daily Chronicle filed amicus briefs of support for the groups challenging the implementation of Marsy’s Law. ACLU of Montana led the litigation filed in Montana Supreme Court, claiming the drivers of the initiative forced it through a ballot vote without providing knowledge of its impacts to voters, who passed CI-116 with 66 percent of the vote in November.

The challenging petition filed against Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton asks the high court to void the enactment of the initiative and the respective election results.

Parties on both sides of the case filed a joint motion on June 29, asking the Supreme Court to hold off on implementing the initiative until the conclusion of the litigation, which the court granted on June 30.

“Marsy’s Law was passed with the best of intentions but unfortunately it is open to broad and varying interpretations,” Great Falls Tribune Publisher & Editor Jim Strauss said. “It has the potential to bog down the legal process in Montana. One of our biggest concerns is that this law is being interpreted and applied differently from county to county. We don’t need 56 approaches to the law.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s hold on implementing Marsy’s Law, Cascade County officials launched the initiative in mid-June and began pulling information from public records.

“The other part of it is while strengthening victims’ rights is an admirable goal, it can’t trample on the rights of the accused or the public’s right to know,” Strauss said. “What we’re seeing early on is it’s starting to do just that.”

The ACLU was joined initially by the Montana Association of Counties, Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and a victims’ rights advocate. Five Lee Montana newspapers already have filed amicus briefs to join in support.

The suit, filed June 20, claims Marsy’s Law’s passing was financed by an out-of-state entity attempting a “hostile takeover” of Montana’s Constitution. Marsy’s Law effectively amends several sections of the state constitution, which would have required a separate vote per section, the petition states.

Furthermore, the suit claims the initiative diminishes state residents’ “right to know” regarding details of crimes, like locations of alleged offenses, and stomps on the rights of the accused in giving alleged victims a designated place at the prosecutor’s table. In Cascade County, law enforcement and prosecutors began redacting public information, such as identities and locations, from public reports to comply with the law.

The Montana Consitution, the petition reads, already contained victims rights, which were squashed by the incoming Marsy’s Law without voters’ understanding its impacts.Top of Form

Bottom of Form

“Rather than tailor their initiative to Montana’s Constitution, the proponents of CI-116 shoehorned the product of their nationwide Marsy’s Law crusade into Article II as a new section, ignoring the Constitution’s pre-exisiting text,” the petition reads.

Martha Sheehy, the Billings attorney representing the newspapers in the suit, wrote in her amicus brief for Lee Newspapers on June 26 that the new law would inhibit newspapers’ “ability to gather news and information, and will consequently impair the public’s right to know.”

“The effect of the law on newsgatherers is not merely hypothetical,” the brief reads. “Newspapers have already encountered difficulties in Montana when gathering news regarding criminal matters.

“Journalists stand in the shoes of the public in gathering information, and are most familiar with the practical ramifications of CI-116 on access to public information.”

In two instances specific to Great Falls, Tasha Roberts’ body was found May 16 in a motel room before the suspect was charged with homicide. Roberts’ name was not found in court documents and police did not release her name. In another case, Pamela Jean Courtnage is charged with the homicide of a 69-year-old woman who was reportedly helping with maintenance work on Courtnage’s home. That victim’s name remains sealed due to Marsy’s Law, although a woman claiming to be a family member of the victim called the Tribune saying it felt disrespectful that the victim’s name and relationship to the defendant was omitted from respective news stories.

Chuck Denowh, campaign manager to led Marsy’s Law to a successful passage last year, told the Tribune in June that withholding the details of those crimes was a misinterpretation by local authorities.

Denowh did not return phone calls or emails from the Tribune for comment on this story, but has previously said the ACLU’s litigation against the law was disappointing.

“I find it disappointing that a group that is supposed to protect the civil rights of everybody is trying to tear down the rights of crime victims,” he said.