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When it comes to evaluating the decisions of the Montana Supreme Court in terms of how they impact business, the court as a whole emerged as supportive of business only 45 percent of the time from 2008 through 2009, according to the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 Judicial Review of the Montana Supreme Court.
The Chamber of Commerce conducts the evaluation in an effort “to provide a private sector, free enterprise perspective in important cases before the Montana Supreme Court.”
Among the justices, Justice Jim Rice emerged as most supportive, over his career on the bench, with a score of 81 percent. Former Chief Justice Karla Gray, who retired in 2008, was second highest with a score of 71 percent.
The court’s newest judge and current Chief Justice Mike McGrath, has a 60 percent rating, but the score is based upon very few cases compared to the other justices, since McGrath was only elected in 2008.
Justice John Warner also had a score of 60 percent.
The least supportive of business in her decisions is Justice Patricia Cotter with 28 percent, followed by Justice William Leaphart with 39 percent. Justice Jim Nelson has a score of 40 percent; and Justice Brian Morris has a score of 45 percent.
The report from the Chamber states that the study was done with an understanding that judges are bound by the rule of law. “The federal and state constitutions, judicial construction, and prior case decisions, rather than anti-business or pro-business positions, may dictate the outcome of a particular case. In these instances, it is difficult to hold a judge philosophically accountable for a particular outcome,” said the report.
The Chamber selected cases for the analysis that had an impact, either positive or negative, on businesses in the state, excluding those cases which had a negative impact on one type of business and a positive on another type.
A strict set of criteria was used to achieve the most objective report possible.
In two Montana Supreme Court cases the Chamber took a direct involvement.
The first case, Satterlee v. Lumberman’s Mutual, involved plaintiffs who were asking the Court to overturn the statute that prohibits a person from collecting both permanent total disability payments from workers’ compensation and retirement income. The theory behind the statute is that a person should not receive indemnity for lost wages if the person is no longer a part of the workforce.
If decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Satterlee case would have cost the workers’ compensation system more than $250 million. The Montana Chamber filed an amicus brief outlining the reasons the statute should be upheld, including the need for an affordable, reliable workers’ compensation system in the state to maintain a competitive business climate with other states. The Court ultimately upheld the statute on a 5 to 2 decision.
The Montana Chamber recently filed another amicus brief in the Alexander v. Bozeman Motors case, where two plaintiffs asked the Montana Supreme Court to essentially throw out the Legislature’s 2001 amendments to the workers’ compensation exclusive remedy rule. If decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Chamber is concerned that “Montana employers would see a flood of new frivolous workplace injury lawsuits outside of the workers’ compensation system.” The Montana Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the case.
The Big Sky Business Journal
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Billings, MT 59103