Montana's executive and legislative branches are responsible for maintaining law and order within the state's jurisdiction. 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.
There are also federal appellate courts which are a representative of the federal judiciary in the state. These federal courts are tasked with hearing federal cases pertaining to federal law which are typically out of the jurisdiction of state courts.
All courts operate an administrative office that generate and maintain Montana court records, providing an official account of judicial proceedings heard in the court.
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 Supreme court 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.
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.
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.
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.