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MT Supreme Court rules laws, including one on transgender athletes, violate Board of Regents' authority

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 5:30 PM, Apr 26, 2024

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that found three bills from the 2021 state legislative session overstepped onto the authority of the Montana University System Board of Regents.

The most prominent of the bills was House Bill 112, which banned transgender female athletes at public schools from participating in women’s sports. A majority of justices agreed that bill was unconstitutional as applied to colleges and universities.

In addition to HB 112, the court also ruled against:

· House Bill 349, which limited how colleges and universities could discipline students for certain speech and when they can deny recognition to student organizations.
· A section of Senate Bill 319 that would have required student organizations that also function as political committees – specifically the advocacy group MontPIRG – to be funded through a fee that students can pay if they opt in, instead of one they are required to pay unless they opt out.

A large group of individuals and organizations filed suit over these bills. In their arguments, the plaintiffs made the case that the Montana Constitution gives the Board of Regents full authority to oversee the state’s university system, and that the bills infringed on that authority. In 2022, a district judge in Gallatin County sided with the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the state argued the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to challenge the laws. On HB 112 specifically, they said the law was not targeting the Board of Regents or universities specifically, and that the board had not established a policy on transgender athletes.

Justice Ingrid Gustafson wrote in her ruling – joined by Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justices Laurie McKinnon and Jim Shea – that the plaintiffs had established standing by showing they would be harmed by the bills, and that they could make the argument the bills unconstitutionally infringed on the Board’s authority even if the Board itself did not sue.

Gustafson said the Board of Regents had essentially expressed a judgment on how to handle transgender athletes by linking participation to NCAA and NAIA requirements. She said HB 112 does address elementary and high schools as well as colleges and universities, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t infringing on the Board.

“The Legislature cannot avoid Article X, § 9’s grant of power to the Board by simply adding non-MUS institutions to the law,” she wrote.

Gustafson also said, because the state had focused its arguments on stating HB 112 was not unconstitutional, they had essentially conceded on the other two bills, so the district court’s ruling against them should stand. The state said they centered their defense on the merits on HB 112 for briefing reasons, not because they were conceding the other bills were unconstitutional.

While four out of seven justices agreed to find the bills unconstitutional, they were split on whether the plaintiffs were entitled to receive attorney fees from the state. The district judge had ruled against the plaintiffs’ request. Because a majority of justices didn’t agree fees were warranted, that decision remained in place.

Justice Jim Rice wrote a dissenting opinion, in which he argued the plaintiffs did not have standing in the case and that only the Board of Regents itself should have had the authority to file suit claiming an infringement of its authority. Justice Dirk Sandefur agreed with Rice, but added his own short opinion saying that, if the plaintiffs did have standing, he would agree that the bills were unconstitutional as the majority had ruled.

Read the justices' full opinions below: