A citizen group espousing the need for judicial integrity is backtracking claims on its website after state and national organizations say the group misrepresented itself as a collaborative peer.
The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability, according to the group's own messaging, has been quietly gathering steam over the last year and a half. In April, group president Bart Crabtree told lawmakers the group has been traveling the state to nurture what he called "a fervent quest by Montana citizens out there for oversight over our judiciary."
That same month, the Montana Innocence Project, a legal organization that works to free wrongfully incarcerated people, was surprised to find its organization listed on the group's website as a collaborator the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability claimed to work with.
The Montana Innocence Project contacted the group with a request to be removed from the group's page in April, and had to reiterate its request again recently to get Crabtree's group to comply.
The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability appeared on the scene at the same time state Republicans are openly challenging the judicial branch. Elected judicial officials, particularly Supreme Court justices, have called the GOP's efforts a campaign to undermine the credibility of the courts. Crabtree's group is a local chapter of a national effort. It has been registered with the Montana Secretary of State's Office as a nonprofit since 2019 but could not be located in IRS nonprofit databases.
Last week the National Registry of Exonerations, a collaborative legal project housed at the University of Michigan, also asked Crabtree's group to remove it from the list of collaborators. Barbara O'Brien, Michigan State University law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, said in an email to the Montana State News Bureau the organization was not collaborating with the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability "in any capacity."
As of Tuesday, Crabtree's outfit had not removed the Registry from its website, as it had for the Montana Innocence Project, but instead changed the section of its website. Instead of reading "Collaboration; The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability works with the following organizations," it has been revised to remove the suggestion of collaborations, and reads, "The data that The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability is utilizing derives from these sources."
"While we were not happy with the original misrepresentation that we were collaborating with that organization, we do not object to the statement that they are using our data," O'Brien said Tuesday.
Elizabeth Peterson, a spokesperson for the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability, said Wednesday she sees "no concern at all" with the group misrepresenting its affiliations on its website.
"We have a very healthy and productive relationship with both of those organizations," Peterson said when asked about the National Registry of Exonerations and the Montana Innocence Project, adding the Crabtree group has even shared information and data back and forth these organizations.
"That's inaccurate," said Amy Sings in the Timber, executive director at the Montana Innocence Project, who described a few conversations with Crabtree but nothing further.
O'Brien reiterated Wednesday the National Registry of Exonerations was unaware of the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability until learning of the misrepresentation on the group's website.
Crabtree did not return calls made Tuesday to the number on the group's website seeking comment for this story; Peterson responded to questions in one email and answered a subsequent phone call by the Montana State News Bureau, but did not return a follow-up call with information she said she would gather for a further interview.
Crabtree has, however, given public testimony in legislative hearings and an interview to a conservative radio talk show about a mission to establish citizen oversight over the judicial branch of government, citing a lack of accountability in the courts. The shift proposed by Crabtree and the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability claims its footing on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which generally grants power not delegated to the federal government to the states and to the people.
The Montana Constitution, however, already grants oversight over the judicial branch to the Judicial Standards Commission, an arm within the same judicial branch.
Opponents to the notion of handing citizens the power to remove judges, including the State Bar of Montana, have argued judges should rule on the law instead of being coerced by public opinion. Opponents also contended some of the arguments deployed against the Judicial Standards Commission, particularly a high dismissal rate of complaints against judges, are hollow talking points. Crabtree, meanwhile, has likened the panel to "the fox guarding the henhouse."
Past experiences in court
Crabtree is serving a probationary sentence for embezzling more than $5,000 from a Great Falls girls' softball organization in 2017. He was also convicted in Teton County in 2001 of issuing a bad check, a felony, according to Montana Department of Corrections records.
Peterson did not return a follow up email asking about any connection between Crabtree's conviction and his pursuit of citizen oversight of judges.
Crabtree appealed his embezzlement case to the Montana Supreme Court in 2017, claiming a number of technical errors by the District Court judge. One point of contention was the judge barring Crabtree, who was representing himself in the case, from questioning his accuser in a manner that appeared to put her on trial.
He told Redoubt News, a conservative Christian blog, that he never had any help from the legal community because the judicial system was against him. In reaching for aid, he came across the National Forum on Judicial Accountability, the blog reported. Two weeks after he lost his appeal to the Supreme Court in October 2019, Crabtree had established the Montana Forum on Judicial Accountability. That earlier iteration of the State Council on Judicial Accountability hosted a gathering at the Holiday Inn Express hotel in Great Falls with Zena Crenshaw-Logal, co-administrator of the national chapter.
In the video of the meeting, Crenshaw-Logal speaks about the importance of citizen panels on judicial misconduct replacing existing commissions like Montana's Judicial Standards Commission, which ultimately reports and makes recommendations to the state Supreme Court. The commission meets four times a year to consider complaints and the proceedings are confidential until the matter is adjudicated.
"We anticipate that these citizen panels on judicial misconduct will replace these commissions," Crenshaw-Logal said in the 2019 meeting. "This is the first step, this meeting, to organize for that and we believe it's consistent with the constitution and it's within our powers as private citizens to conduct these citizen panels through an independent branch in the Legislature."
Focus on the judiciary
Fast forward to April, as the state Legislature is escalating a standoff with the judiciary, particularly the Montana Supreme Court. Emails between judges obtained by the Montana State News Bureau show judges were especially concerned about House Bill 685, which would add enough citizens to the Judicial Standards Commission to create a supermajority with additional power to remove judges. The bill would have also rebranded the panel as "The Judicial Inquiry Commission."
Rep. Brad Tschida, a Missoula Republican who carried HB 685, did not return a call seeking comment on Crabtree's group. During hearings, he stated his agreement with the idea that citizens, rather than the Judicial Standards Commission, should decide misconduct allegations against judges.
Crabtree promoted the bill under the premise that the vast majority of complaints against judges are dismissed by the Judicial Standards Commission. But Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan, who chairs the commission, told lawmakers in a March hearing on the bill that most complaints the Judicial Standards Commission receives are not ethical in nature, but from litigants disgruntled with the judge's ruling.
"They raise legal issues that could be addressed on an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court," Menahan said. "Making an error of law is not an unethical act. We're fallible, we're human, we're judges, we make mistakes. When we do make mistakes, those can be corrected on an appeal to the Supreme Court."
Bruce Spencer, representing the State Bar of Montana, told lawmakers the bill was "Orwellian."
"Courts are not subject to popular opinion," Spencer said. "They're limited to the facts and law before them only."
The bill ultimately died on the House floor. Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings, sought to steer the House away from re-engineering the Judicial Standards Commission as an instrument to remove judges by politically appointed laypeople.
The former U.S. District Attorney for Montana, Mercer said he didn't believe claims propelling HB 685 were fully factual. He cited the notion that Montana has an exceedingly high rate of wrongful convictions. He drew lawmakers instead toward House Joint Resolution 40, an interim review and legislative audit of the commission to bear out whether complaints against the commission were valid.
"Our House Bill 685, regarding the Judicial Standards Commission, has caught the attention of many people over the last couple weeks," Crabtree told a legislative committee after the bill died. He was flanked at the April 29 hearing by parents who have also disputed court rulings removing their children after allegations of physical abuse and neglect.
"Citizens' involvement is a strategy for judicial oversight that makes the most sense," Crabtree told lawmakers.
Rep. Greg Hertz, who chairs the legislative committee investigating the judiciary, said after the hearing he had received a number of emails from Crabtree but had not spoke directly with the group.
"I really don't know much about them," said Hertz, a Polson Republican.
Crabtree's group is now looking to recruit citizen support, riding the conflict between the judiciary and Republican lawmakers. The group emailed Missoula City Council members a week ago inviting them to a June 26 event to rally for the cause. The invitation mentions an "overwhelming amount of calls" the group has received regarding allegations of judicial misconduct, as well as the ongoing investigation of the judiciary by GOP legislators. It also mentions an excessively high number of wrongful convictions in Montana compared to the rest of the country, the same claim Mercer disputed during the Legislature two months ago.
Claims about wrongful convictions
The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability has repeatedly claimed Montana ranks ninth in the U.S. for wrongful convictions, although it does not specify if that's per-capita or not. Peterson, the group's spokesperson, did not respond to a follow-up question asking about the group's source on wrongful conviction rates. At the National Registry of Exonerations, the source from which Crabtree's group claims to secure its figures, O'Brien said ninth is an inaccurate figure. The only wrongful convictions that come to light are those that result in exonerations, O'Brien said.
"You always have to be careful about inferring the frequency of false convictions from the number of exonerations because so many factors contribute to the number of exonerations besides the underlying number of false convictions," O'Brien said in an email. She said scenarios like an area with an active innocence organization could have more exonerations than somewhere with fewer resources.
"So Montana may have a higher rate of wrongful convictions than other states, or it may not. You can learn a lot about false convictions from exonerations, but you can’t really infer much about the rate of false convictions in a particular jurisdiction from them because so many other factors contribute to the number of exonerations," O'Brien said.
In six years as a Missoula city councilor, Gwen Jones said she has never received a complaint against judges there. As an attorney, Jones said she grew suspicious of the representations made on the group's website regarding its affiliations with state and national nonprofits like the Montana Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations. Jones also sees the Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability's invitation to their event in the greater context of the conflict between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary.
"Attacking our Montana judiciary is a serious action, and I believe the Legislature's actions against the Montana Supreme Court are ill-taken and harmful to our state," Jones said in an email. "Now to see entities like the (Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability) pop up and 'take on' our judiciary is dangerous. I hope Montanans are paying attention."