Keila Szpaller, Daily Montanan
Attorney General Austin Knudsen is facing 41 counts of professional misconduct with a special counsel alleging he defied and repeatedly sought to undermine the Montana Supreme Court, contrary to his ethical obligations as a lawyer and to the detriment of justice.
“Knudsen and lawyers under his supervision routinely and frequently undermined public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our system of justice by attempting to evade the authority of the Montana Supreme Court and assaulting the integrity of the judiciary and the individual Justices who were duly elected by Montana citizens to make decisions,” said the complaint, filed by Special Counsel Timothy Strauch for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
“Because of this misconduct, the public may be led to question whether the judicial system itself is worthy of respect.”
Appointed by the Montana Supreme Court, Strauch filed the complaint Tuesday, requesting a formal hearing before a disciplinary panel. The complaint requests Knudsen be ordered to respond within 21 days.
Knudsen, a Republican who took office in 2021, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, but his office told Lee Enterprises late Tuesday the complaint was “meritless.”
“The Attorney General looks forward to filing his response with the commission,” spokesperson Emilee Cantrell said in an email to Lee Enterprises late Tuesday. “The allegations are meritless and stem from a legitimate dispute between two branches of government. No one should be persecuted for holding a different opinion than those in power.”
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel is established by the Montana Supreme Court. Its responsibilities include investigating and prosecuting grievances against lawyers including misconduct allegations.
Strauch, with the Strauch Law Firm in Missoula, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The bio posted on his law firm’s website notes he was appointed as the first disciplinary counsel for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The allegations in the complaint stem from a fight among government branches that erupted in 2021 over the power of the judiciary and statements Knudsen or lawyers working under his supervision made about the court and justices.
The complaint references two proceedings. One challenged the constitutionality of SB 140, which did away with the judicial nominating commission and cleared a path for the governor to appoint judges directly, and the other stemmed from a legislative probe into the judicial system that Knudsen sought to enforce.
The complaint cites numerous statements made by the Attorney General’s Office it alleges inappropriately smeared the Montana Supreme Court, and it also notes Knudsen failed to promptly return records in direct defiance of a court order.
This story will be updated.
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