Are Montana Court Records Public?
Yes. In accordance with the Montana Public Records Act, Montana court records are public records made accessible to anyone upon request. The Public Records Act is a series of laws designed to guarantee every person the right to inspect and obtain a copy of any public information of Montana. Montana defines a public record as information that is fixed in any medium and is retrievable in a usable form for future reference; and designated for retention by the state records committee, judicial branch, legislative branch, or local government records committee.
Note that not all court records are available to be accessed publicly. The Montana Public Records Act authorizes record custodians to withhold part or complete records where public disclosure jeopardizes the safety of facility personnel, the public, students in a public school, or inmates of a facility. A public officer is not required to withhold information from public access any more than is required to protect the privacy and security of these parties. Some court records have also been expunged or redacted in line with a state or federal law. Such records are forbidden from public disclosure.
Montana's Public Record Act was first passed in 1895, six years after Montana achieved statehood. The Act has undergone several modifications with one of the recent amendments expanding the definition of "records" to include all items in electronic format or other non-print media. Hence, Montana court records in electronic formats can be accessed by anyone.
Montana makes no distinction in the status of a public record requester. Any citizen of Montana or another state, or anyone else, can make a direct request to the record custodian to obtain public records. The purpose of a public record request is not usually required of the requester.
How Do I Find Court Records in Montana?
The first step to take when trying to obtain court records in Montana is to ascertain the court where the case was filed. The Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court provides access to public court documents filed with the court. Interested persons may view the records at the Office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court. However, they are not allowed to "check-out" the records for review offsite without having obtained express permission by order of the court.
The Montana Supreme Court records are categorized into:
- Territorial period through 1937 - These records have been placed on microfiche and are accessible at the Montana Historical Society and the Montana State Law Library.
- Records from 1938 to 2012 - These are stored in two off-site locations. To retrieve a record in this category, contact the Clerk of the Supreme Court at (406) 444-3858. Allow for two days for retrieval.
- Records from 2013 - present - These are kept onsite in the vault in the Office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Interested persons can review these records in-person and without a prior reservation during regular office hours.
The Montana Supreme Court Case Public View Docket Search tool also allows members of the public to search for either active or closed cases. Closed dockets are separated into two categories: 1979 -2005 and 2006 - present. Users can search by case number, case party, or case attorney.
For in-person requests to the Montana Supreme Court, visit:
215 N Sanders St #323
Helena, MT 59601
The Office of the clerk of Court opens between 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding holidays.
The following rates apply for obtaining court transcripts in Montana:
- $2.20 - Ordinary Transcript rate per page (furnished to any state or local government agency)
- $2.70 - Ordinary Transcript rate per page (furnished to any non-governmental party)
- $4.35 - Expedited Transcript rate per page
- $5.45 - Daily Transcript rate per page
To obtain court records from the lower courts in Montana, visit the location of the appropriate court. The Montana courts website provides a court locator tool to find the locations of all courts in the state.
Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:
- The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method.
- The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states.
While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government-sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.
How Do Montana Courts Work?
The Montana court system comprises the Supreme Court, the District Courts, and the courts of limited jurisdiction. Funded by the legislature, the Montana court system's superintendent arm is the Montana Supreme Court, with administration coming from the state Court Administrator’s Office. Specialty courts exist in Montana, with jurisdiction over specific case types. Certain issues are also resolved by administrative tribunals that act in the same fact-finding role as regular Montana trial courts.
Montana District Courts have general jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases. The Water and Worker's Compensation Courts have specific limited jurisdictions over the adjudication of existing water rights, and workers' compensation disputes. Montana Justice, City, and Municipal Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. While their jurisdictions slightly differ, these three courts broadly address cases related to misdemeanor offenses, civil cases for amounts up to $12,000, small claims valued up to $7,000, landlord/tenant disputes, local ordinances, forcible entry and detainers, specific juvenile matters, and protection orders.
Historically, Montana courts of limited jurisdiction handle cases about five times the caseload of the state's District Courts. Most Montanans primarily encounter the state's justice system in the courts of limited jurisdiction. All limited jurisdiction court judges are required to attend two Supreme Court-supervised training conferences each year and pass a certification examination each term. Failure to attend a training conference or pass the examination creates a vacancy in the judge's office. Trials in Montana limited jurisdiction courts may be decided by a judge or a jury. Jury trials can be demanded by the concerned parties in most instances. However, there are a few circumstances in which a jury trial will be denied, such as cases involving parenting plans and bankruptcy. Some juries, such as for misdemeanors, are made up of six jurors, while others, such as for felonies, consists of 12 jurors.
To reflect Montana's tribal diversity and the Montana Indian tribe's sovereignty, the start established a tribal court system in 1935 operating on each of the state’s seven Indian reservations. Judges in the tribal courts are appointed to serve four-year terms.
What Are Civil Court and Small Claims?
Montana Small Claims Courts are special court sessions designed for suits of $7,000 or less. These courts are focused on providing a speedy and inexpensive remedy for small claims without having to hire an attorney, and without the requirement of a formal trial. The rules and procedures for handling small claims cases are set out in Title 25, Chapter 35 of the Montana Code Annotated.
Nearly any kind of case where people are suing for money or recovery of personal property can be heard in Montana Small Claims Courts. For instance, cases involving individuals suing on unpaid bills or tenants suing to obtain a refund on security deposits are handled in the Small Claims Courts, provided the amount in controversy does not exceed $7,000. One party in a small claims case may not be represented by an attorney except where all parties are represented by attorneys.
Anyone, including individuals, partnerships, unions, corporations, or associations can sue or be sued in a Montana Small Claims Court. Only the state or an agency of the state is exempted from being sued in the Small Claims Court. Claims may be filed in the county where the defendant may be served or resides. Small claims cases must be for amounts that can be easily determined and not damages claimed for some sort of wrong.
An aggrieved party in a small claims case may file an appeal with the District Court. An individual may not file more than 10 small claims cases in a calendar year, except claims involving shoplifting. Montana civil court places a limit of $12,000 on the amount in controversy for cases brought before the court. Unlike in Small Claims Courts, real estate eviction cases may be filed in the Civil Court. Attorneys may represent parties to a civil court case.
What Are Appeals and Court Limits?
An appeal is a process by which a party to a case asks a higher court to review the ruling or decision of a lower court. If a party believes that the lower court’s ruling was unconstitutional, an appeal can be made to the Montana Supreme Court. An appellate court does not hold new trials to take new evidence during an appellate proceeding. Instead, the case record and decision of the trial court or administrative agency is reviewed to determine if the ruling or judgment was legally correct. Filing a notice of appeal begins an appellate procedure. Montana courts appellate rules are provided in the Montana Rules of Appellate Procedure.
District Court cases may be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, as the apex court in the land. Note that the Supreme Court only reviews timely appeals from final orders or judgments issued by Montana District Courts or petitions for writs which are considered original proceedings before the court.
In civil cases, including proceedings concerning neglected or abused children, the notice of appeal must be filed with the Clerk of the Supreme Court not later than 30 days from the date of entry of the judgment or order from which the appeal is taken. In all other cases in which the United States or the State of Montana, any political subdivision thereof, or any officer or agency thereof is a party, the notice of appeal shall be filed not later than 60 days from the entry of the judgment or order from which appeal is taken.
Montana considers a notice of appeal filed after the announcement of a decision, but before either the entry of the written judgment or order from which the appeal is taken or service of the notice of entry of judgment, as filed on the day of such entry. If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, another party may file a notice of cross-appeal within 15 days after the date on which the first notice of appeal was filed.
An appeal in criminal cases must be filed within 60 days after the entry of the judgment from which the appeal is taken. A notice of appeal filed after the oral pronouncement of a decision or sentence but before the entry of the written judgment or sentence is also treated as filed on the date of the written entry.
Montana allows for out-of-time appeals. In extraordinary circumstances, the Montana Supreme Court may grant an out-of-time appeal where such requests are made by verified petitions supported by affidavits, records, and other evidence establishing the existence of the extraordinary circumstances claimed. Note that such circumstances do not include mere mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect.
Appeals related to matters of law only in small claim cases must be filed within 10 days of the signed judgment date, while there is a 30-day period for appeals to be filed to the District Court in civil court cases. New trials may be held in appeals in the District Courts for matters originating from the civil courts.
What Are Montana Judgment Records?
Judgment records in Montana show the adjudication of a criminal or civil case filed in a court of competent jurisdiction in the state. The court's decision, issued in the form of an order or a declaration of legal rights and responsibilities, becomes binding when the clerk documents it. This action makes judgment records available to the public per the Montana Public Records Act.
Persons who wish to obtain judgment records in Montana must identify the record custodian and provide the necessary details to facilitate a search. Furthermore, the individual must cover the associated court fees. Next, the individual may visit the clerk's office in the court where the case was adjudicated. Generally, this court is in the county where the defendant lives or where the incident happened.
The requester must provide the information needed to identify the court record, such as case number, litigants' names, and the year of judgment. The administrative fees that courts charge cover the labor cost of searching and making copies of the documents sought. Most courts accept cash, money orders, certified checks, and credit cards for these fees.
While judgment records in Montana contain information that reflects the case type, there are similarities. A typical judgment record contains the judge's name, the names of the litigants, the claims of the parties involved, and the judgment issued by the court.
What are Montana Bankruptcy Records?
Montana bankruptcy records are records of individuals or companies who have filed for bankruptcy in courts within the state of Montana. Records of bankruptcy in Montana contain financial information of the person or party filing for bankruptcy, some of which may include:
- Identification documents: copy of driver’s license or social security number.
- Assets: bank statements, real estate deeds, insurance policies, vehicle titles, and any business they may have or invest in.
- Income: copies of tax returns from 2 previous years and pay slips from six months to the present.
- Debt: recent credit report, outstanding bills such as utilities, medical bills, credit card statements, any extant legal proceedings (foreclosure document, debt collection), creditors’ list; addresses, and amount owed.
Bankruptcies in Montana are filed at the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Montana. The bankruptcy records are public and can be accessed electronically through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). However, certain information, such as social security details, the full name of the children, birth date, and residential address of the debtor is not revealed.
Bankruptcy records and records of Montana liens, contracts, writs, and judgments are made accessible to the public under Montana's public information act. However, requestors may be required to meet specific eligibility requirements before accessing a record of interest and provide any information required to facilitate a record search.
How Do I Find My Case Number in Montana?
A case number is a unique number allocated to individual court cases to aid tracking and filing of case information and documents. Regardless of the case management system employed by any state, physical or electronic, a case number aids rapid identification of case information by both record custodians and requesters. Persons interested in finding case numbers in Montana can find them by contacting the clerk of court in the relevant courthouses. Use the Montana court locator tool on the Montana Court website to find the addresses of the appropriate Montana court where the required case is filed.
Users of the Montana Supreme Court Case Docket Search tool can also find requested case numbers by providing the name of a party to the case or the case attorney. The tool returns a list matching the information provided by the user. From this result, users can view the corresponding case numbers for each entry on the list
Can You Look up Court Cases in Montana?
Montana courts provide public access to non-confidential court records of the Supreme Court through its Docket Search tool. Both active and closed dockets from 1979 to the present are available on the portal. All that is required to perform a search is to provide the case number, case party, or case attorney. This service is free to use.
Does Montana Hold Remote Trials?
Yes. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana courts now hold trials through remote-hearing and telephonic hearings for most cases which allowed the courts to limit the number of people in a courtroom and courthouse. Litigants or attorneys who are considered to be at high-risk if exposed to COVID-19 are allowed to appear remotely on request.
What Is the Montana Supreme Court?
The Montana Supreme Court is the highest court in Montana. It has both original and appellate jurisdiction. Its original jurisdiction is in limited cases such as:
- when an inmate requests to be released from prison while awaiting trial
- when the court decides to take supervisory control over a District Court case that has yet to be decided
- Deciding a case that has not been through a District Court if the case does not involve facts, but instead a question about the law or the Constitution.
In its appellate jurisdiction, the court receives petitions for the review of cases that have been decided by Montana lower courts. The Montana Supreme Court makes rules for all court procedures in the state, including rules guiding the submission of court paperwork, scheduling of hearings, and guidelines for trial proceedings. It is also the Supreme Court's responsibility to regulate Montana attorneys. The Montana Supreme Court comprises a chief justice and six associate justices. Justices are elected to eight-year terms and are required to be licensed to practice law in Montana.
Montana District Courts
District Courts are courts of general jurisdiction, handling all kinds of cases not reserved for any other Montana Courts. They are trial courts handling criminal cases, small claims cases, and almost all types of civil cases, including divorce and probate cases. If the State of Montana is sued, the District Court will handle the case. The verdict in a District Court case may be given by a judge or jury.
Montana District Courts also have limited appellate jurisdiction over the review of cases originating from the courts of limited jurisdiction and administrative judges. There are 56 District Courts in Montana which are administratively structured into 22 judicial districts and served by 46 judges.
Montana district judges are elected to serve six-year terms by registered voters in each district, in non-partisan elections.
Montana City Courts
Montana City Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction over specific types of criminal and civil cases. These cases involve violations of city or town ordinances and amounts of up to $5,000. Montana statutes do not require City Court judges to be attorneys. The judges may either be elected or appointed depending on the ordinance or rules of the city in which the courts are located.
There are 84 City Courts in Montana. The judges of Montana City Courts are appointed to serve four-year terms.
Montana Justice of the Peace Courts
Montana Justice of the Peace Courts have limited jurisdiction in civil matters where the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000, small claims cases of amounts lower than $3,000, misdemeanor DUI, traffic cases, and preliminary hearings. In certain counties such as Teton and Musselshell Counties, the Justice Courts handle civil actions under $12,000 and small claim actions under $7,000. Other matters typically handled by the Justice Courts include:
- Temporary orders of protection
- Highway patrol citations
- Fish and game citations
- County attorney complaints
- Montana Department of Livestock citations
Montana grants each county the right to determine if its Justice Court will be a court of record. The Justice Courts in Lewis and Clark, Flathead, and Cascade Counties are courts of record. There are 61 Justice Courts in Montana. Judges of the Justice Courts are elected, unless where an appointment is made to fill a vacated position. Many Justice Court judges serve on both Justice and City Courts. Justice Court judges are not required to be lawyers. They are elected to serve four-year terms. No transcripts are kept of Montana Justice Court proceedings.
Montana Municipal Courts
Montana Municipal Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction largely sharing the same jurisdiction with the Justice Courts in the state. However, they do not handle cases involving city ordinances but are authorized to hear civil cases where the amount involved is up to $7,000. Montana Municipal Courts can also issue search warrants and arrest warrants for felony crimes.
Municipal Courts judges are required to be attorneys and are elected to serve four-year terms unless where they are appointed to fill vacated positions. Appointed judges are to run for the position at the end of the term to which they are appointed. Court proceedings in Montana Municipal Courts are recorded, hence, they are considered courts of record. Trials may be decided by a judge or jury in the Municipal Court. There are six Municipal Courts in Montana.
Montana Water Court
Montana Water Court is a special court with jurisdiction over cases involving the determination of water rights among competing claimants in Montana. Montana's only Water Court is located in Bozeman comprises a chief water judge and four district water judges. These four judges have their own courts. The state creates positions for 12 water masters who are attorneys supervised by the chief water judge. The water masters handle the majority of the adjudication work in the Water Courts. Objections to the determinations of the water masters are referred to the chief water judge or a district water judge.
Pursuant to the Montana Water Use Act of 1973, persons are required to possess a legal right to use either surface water or groundwater in the state. However, the legal right does not indicate possession of the water. The Act stipulates that the State of Montana owns all waters in the state. Although the Water Court follows specific rules adopted by the Montana Supreme Court, the court also follows the same rules and laws of the local District Court.
Orders of the Montana Water Court are published on the Water Courts page on the Montana Judicial Branch website.
Montana Workers’ Compensation Court
Montana's Legislature established the Worker's Compensation Court in 1975 to serve as a forum for resolving disputes arising under the Workers' Compensation Act and the Occupational Disease Act, independent contractor exemptions, theft of benefits, and re-employment preferences. Montana sets the Department of Labor and Industry as the state agency with administrative jurisdiction over the Workers' Compensation Court.
The Workers' Compensation Court has statewide jurisdiction and holds trials in Missoula, Billings, Great Falls, Helena, and Kalispell cities. The court conducts trials and decides requests for judicial review from final orders of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
The Workers' Compensation Court judge serves a six-year term and is appointed by the Montana Governor. The judge is required to have the same qualifications as a Montana District Court judge. The Montana Supreme Court hears appeals of the decisions of the Workers' Compensation Court. Decisions of the Workers' Compensation Court from 1993 to date are published on the court's webpage.
Montana Specialty Courts
Montana specialty courts are the Youth Courts and the Drug Treatment Courts. The Youth Courts handle cases where a juvenile is a party and cases involving where youth is charged with an offense under the Montana Youth Court Act. There is a Youth Court in each of the 22 judicial districts in Montana. The staff of each court comprises a chief probation officer, juvenile probation officers, and support staff.
Youth Courts focus on reducing the number of out-of-home placements of youths. They also have early intervention programs focused on youth at high risk of committing crimes and treating youths within their home communities. The Youth Courts work on the concept of holding youths accountable for criminal behavior and appropriating services towards them with a view to helping them develop necessary skills for life.
First conceived in 1989, Montana Drug Courts were created to reduce the caseload of drug-related court matters and to address adult, youth, and family alcohol and drug dependency issues. Montana Drug Treatment Courts are court dockets within a District Court or a limited jurisdiction court specializing in DUI offenses, juvenile, veteran or civil child abuse, and neglect cases involving persons who are substance dependent.
Montana Drug Courts help the state court system cut down on recidivism and substance abuse among participants and successfully rehabilitate them through drug and alcohol abuse treatment, mandatory and frequent drug testing, use of appropriate sanctions and incentives, and sustained judicial oversight. Montana's first Drug Court was established in 1998 in Missoula. There are currently 31 Drug Courts in Montana, including five Tribal Courts.
Drug Court participants enroll in treatment programs, provide urinalysis, attend self-help forums, meet with case managers, and often attend court for status hearings. Drug Courts complete an all-encompassing assessment on all its participants to help resolve any bio-psycho-social issues that may be impediments to becoming drug-free, productive citizens, including training, employment, and housing issues.