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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Complaints Against Judge Can Be Published

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - A law that requires that judicial investigations be kept confidential violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled.

Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen granted former U.S. Senate candidate and Libertarian Party member Dan Cox's motion for an injunction Tuesday, preventing Montana's Judicial Standards Commission from charging him with contempt for publishing details of a complaint against Jeffrey Langton, a judge with the Ravalli County District Court.

Langton made history in 2005 when he became the first district judge in Montana to be censured.

"Jeffrey Langton was arrested for DUI in 2005 and then violated his probation by consuming alcohol," Cox's attorney Matthew Monforton, of Bozeman, told Courthouse News. "He has had some problems. Dan Cox is going to attempt to initiate a recall."

The recall was put on hold while Cox and Monforton addressed a law that was added to Montana's Constitution in 1972, making all Commission proceedings confidential.

Cox filed a class action in June 2014, alleging the gag law on judicial investigations is unconstitutional.

He said he was compelled to write a complaint about Langton after he "became aware of actions" he had taken that allegedly violate the Montana judicial Code.

The actions, he said, "included unlawful, ex-parte communications with a party to an action while the action was pending in the judge's court and lack of impartiality and fairness concerning rulings made in the action," Cox claims in his 13-page complaint.

Cox asked the Commission to investigate Langton, and says it found "no ethical violation" or "professional misconduct," but came to that conclusion after only a "preliminary review."

Cox says he wants to use the information about Langton in the recall, but that the Commission cautioned him in a letter to keep his mouth shut or face contempt proceedings.

Judge Christensen, however, granted his motion for an injunction on Sept. 30, finding that Cox made a legitimate claim that his civil rights are being violated.

Citing McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), Christenses found: "The court concludes that Cox makes a colorable claim that his First Amendment rights have been infringed. Cox wished to criticize government officials and a government body for political reasons, but he is restricted from doing so by threat of civil or criminal prosecution. Political speech 'occupies the core of the protection afforded by the First Amendment.'"

Also citing the 9th Circuit in Sanders County Republican Cent. Committee v. Bullock (2012), Christensen added: "The Supreme Court has held that 'the First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression in order to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.'"

She concluded that Cox is likely to succeed on the merits and that the Commission did not even make an attempt to justify the "perpetual" ban on publishing the dismissed complaint and letter sent to him by the Commission.

Cox, on the other hand, was able to show irreparable harm, balance of hardships absent an injunction and that the injunction serves the public interest.

"Because Cox has made an adequate showing on all four preliminary injunction factors, he is entitled to a preliminary injunction enjoining defendants from punishing him for publishing his complaint and the dismissal letter he received from the Commission," Christensen ruled. "Cox may publish his judicial complaint and dismissal letter and defendants are enjoined from punishing him for contempt."

Langton is up for re-election in two years.

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