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Lebeau v. Montana Fourth Judicial District Court

Supreme Court of Montana

November 19, 2013

STANLEY ISAAC LEBEAU, JOSHUA MICHAEL CHILCOTE, EMILY ELLEN SKEELS, TRAVIS STEVEN BRANCH, and DAVID RUSSELL THOMAN, Petitioners,
v.
MONTANA FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, MISSOULA COUNTY, THE HONORABLES ED MCLEAN, ROBERT L. DESCHAMPS III, JOHN W. LARSON and KAREN S. TOWNSEND, PRESIDING, Respondents.

ORDER

The petitioners above-named, by counsel, filed a Petition for Writ of Supervisory Control on October 8, 2013. They seek an order directing the District Court to vacate the Invitation to Assume Jurisdiction issued in each of their respective cases, and return their cases to the Fourth Judicial District. Petitioners also asked that we immediately stay further proceedings in these District Court cases pending our disposition of their petition for supervisory control. By Order of October 11, 2013, we denied the request for immediate stay and invited a response. The four District Court judges of the Montana Fourth Judicial District Court, by counsel, have now filed a summary response to the petition, together with their personal affidavits and supporting documentation.

The petitioners represent that they are indigent defendants represented by the Office of State Public Defender (OPD) who have timely filed motions to substitute a district judge in the Fourth Judicial District Court, pursuant to § 3-1-804, MCA. They complain that in each of their cases, following the filing of a motion to substitute the district judge, each of the remaining district judges in the Fourth Judicial District have declined to assume jurisdiction. As a result, an invitation to assume jurisdiction has been extended to a district judge outside of the Fourth Judicial District, thereby requiring indigent defendants to make personal appearances in remote judicial districts. They maintain that this practice creates a burden for the petitioners, and argue that they are being unconstitutionally punished for exercising their statutory right to substitute a district court judge. They further complain that the alleged practice of the judges in the Fourth Judicial District to decline to assume jurisdiction under these circumstances is vindictive in nature, and that the State is not being similarly punished for substituting a district court judge in the same district. Petitioners ask that we exercise supervisory control pursuant to M. R. App. P. 14(3), and direct the District Court to vacate the Invitation to Assume Jurisdiction in each of their respective cases, and return each case to the Fourth Judicial District.

Having reviewed the petition and the response, we conclude that the exercise of supervisory control is inappropriate. First, Rule 14(3) requires that the case sub judice involve purely legal questions. Petitioners allege that the respondents have acted in concert and with vindictiveness to punish indigent defendants. Issues of motive and ill will are distinctly factual issues. Because it is not unlawful per se for the respondents to issue invitations to assume jurisdiction to district court judges outside of the jurisdiction, a finding of vindictiveness or ill will would be required in order to support a determination that the activities of the respondents are unlawful. This Court does not engage in fact-finding, particularly in matters of supervisory control.

Second, the petition does not establish that the respondents are proceeding under a mistake of law or causing a gross injustice. As the response and supporting affidavits attest, Judge Larson has been substituted by OPD in 54 criminal cases and 9 juvenile cases between January 1, 2013, and October 7, 2013. Of these 63 total cases, only 12 have been referred to judges in other judicial districts, with one more pending. Despite their workloads, the other judges within the district have in the past nine months assumed jurisdiction in nearly 80 percent of the cases in which Judge Larson has been substituted by OPD. Given these statistics, it can hardly be seriously argued that there is a concerted and vindictive effort among the Fourth Judicial District judges to chill the constitutional rights of defendants who exercise their statutory right to substitute a district court judge.

Finally, the petitioners have failed to identify any urgency or emergency factors that render the normal appeal process inadequate in their respective cases, as Rule 14(3) requires. Therefore,

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the petition for writ of supervisory control is DENIED.

The Clerk of this Court is directed to provide notice of this Order to all counsel of record.


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