In his latest political stunt, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has attempted to usurp the constitutional authority of both the governor and the Legislature.
The Legislature passed House Bill 132 changing the definition of bison and sent it to Gov. Steve Bullock on April 10. The governor proposed amendments and returned the bill to the Legislature where simple majorities of the House and Senate rejected his proposal and sent HB132 back to him on April 24. Four days later, Bullock vetoed the bill and sent his veto letter to the Legislature, which posted the letter on its website.
When Stapleton received written notice of the HB132 veto, he failed to carry out his constitutional duty to notify lawmakers of their option to reconvene to reconsider the vetoed bill. Instead, Stapleton announced via Twitter on May 29 that Bullock's veto didn't count and that he was adding HB132 to the laws of Montana. Stapleton claimed that the bill became law because he hadn't received written notice of the veto within 10 days.
His claim has no legal basis. Neither the Montana Constitution nor statutes set a 10-day time limit for the governor to deliver a veto notice to the secretary of state.
Bullock sued in state District Court to stop Stapleton from thwarting the Montana Constitution. Judge James Reynolds issued a temporary order restraining Stapleton from putting the vetoed bill into state code and ordered him to notify lawmakers of the veto, as required by the Montana Constitution.
On June 5, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Mike McMahon issued a preliminary injunction against Stapleton, preventing him from putting the vetoed bill into state law. McMahon also continued the order for Stapleton to do his duty to notify lawmakers of the veto, which he had refused to do as of June 5.
McMahon made clear at the 40-minute hearing that Stapleton doesn't have a legal leg to stand on.
The judge repeatedly asked the secretary of state's recently hired counsel where in Montana law there is a requirement for the the governor to notify Stapleton of a veto within 10 days. Stapleton's attorney could not cite such a law because none exists.
We doubt that Stapleton relied on advice from any member of the Montana bar when he, as McMahon said, "usurped the authority of the governor to veto."
"There is no requirement in the number of days when the governor has to deliver a veto message to the secretary of state. The governor acted consistent with the constitution," McMahon said, adding later: "It seems to me the only person who didn't do his job is the secretary of state."
Stapleton, who was elected secretary of state in 2016, still doesn't understand his job. He doesn't have the power to veto legislation or to ignore his constitutional duties as he did in the case of HB132.
Stapleton is running to replace Bullock, who will reach his term limit in December. As a 2020 gubernatorial candidate, Stapleton's attempt to unilaterally override a veto again demonstrates that he doesn't know or follow Montana law. His latest gubernatorial campaign started with an emailed announcement that violated Montana law because he used a state employee and state email system to promote his candidacy.
Montanans expect the secretary of state to carefully follow the law. Stapleton still has 18 months left in his term. He should start showing that he will put state law above his personal political aspirations.