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Suits challenging new laws affecting MT U-system will go to District Court

Supreme Court declines initial jurisdiction
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Posted at 5:48 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 19:48:35-04

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday declined to take jurisdiction over a pair of lawsuits challenging four Republican-passed laws affecting the state university system, saying they’re better heard first in state District Court.

Both plaintiffs in the suits – the state Board of Regents and a coalition of labor groups and students, faculty and U-system former officials – said they will refile the cases in the District Court.

“This (ruling) doesn’t change MFPE’s course,” said Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees. “We will continue to defend Montana’s constitution as we always have, but now in a different venue.”

MFPE is one of the plaintiffs in the coalition lawsuit. Both suits were filed with the Supreme Court last Thursday.

The suits challenged laws passed by Republican majorities in the 2021 Legislature, that, among other things, prevented the Board of Regents from banning firearms on state college campuses and forbid voter-registration drives at various campus locations.

The lawsuits said the laws are an unconstitutional infringement on the regents’ power to manage the university system.

They asked the high court to take direct control of the cases and rule on the laws’ constitutionality – and, to block the firearm law from taking effect next Tuesday.

A unanimous court said Wednesday that no “urgency or emergency factors” exist that would make litigation in the district courts inadequate. The Supreme Court rarely takes a case directly, and usually deals with cases first tried in District Court and then appealed to the high court.

The regents’ lawsuit challenges a portion of House Bill 102, which blocks the regents from banning firearm possession on state campuses – a ban that’s been in place for many years.

The coalition lawsuit challenges that law and three others:

· House Bill 112, which prohibits transgender athletes from playing on collegiate sports teams that don’t align with their gender at birth.

· Senate Bill 319, which bans political groups from conducting voter-registration and voter-turnout efforts on state campuses and prohibits a University of Montana funding mechanism for a campus-housed activist group, MontPIRG.

· House Bill 349, which creates new guidelines for free speech and anti-harassment policies on state campuses.