Mea-Mft v. State

Decision Date25 March 2014
Docket NumberNo. OP 13–0789.,OP 13–0789.
Citation323 P.3d 198,374 Mont. 296
PartiesMEA–MFT, the Montana State AFL–CIO The Montana Public Employees Association, the Montana Human Rights Network and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Petitioners, v. The STATE of Montana, Honorable Tim Fox, in his capacity as Attorney General, Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court




¶ 1 This is an original proceeding. The petition challenges the legal sufficiency of Legislative Referendum 127 (LR–127), a measure enacted by the Legislature in 2013 as a referendum to be put to a public vote at the time of the November 2014 general election.

¶ 2 The petition alleges that the Attorney General's approval of the proposed ballot measure for legal sufficiency was incorrect under Montana law, and seeks to enjoin the State of Montana from placing the measure on the general election ballot. Petitioners also seek attorney fees and costs.

¶ 3 On December 5, 2013, the Attorney General filed a response asserting that the legal review was correct and asking that the petition be denied. On December 10, 2013, this Court asked the parties for supplemental briefing. The briefs have been filed and the matter is ripe for a decision.

¶ 4 This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Attorney General's determination that a ballot measure referred by the Legislature is legally sufficient. Section 3–2–202(3), MCA; Mont. Const. art. IV, § 7.

¶ 5 We restate the issue as follows: Whether the State of Montana should be enjoined from placing LR–127 on the general election ballot in 2014 because of legal deficiencies in its title.


¶ 6 LR–127 was passed by the Montana Legislature in 2013 as Senate Bill 408. The measure proposes to eliminate political party primary elections as they traditionally have been held in this State, replacing them with a system in which all candidates would appear on a single primary ballot. The two candidates who receive the most votes would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

¶ 7 In Montana the people may enact laws by initiative, and may approve or reject any act of the Legislature except for appropriations of money. Mont. Const. art. III, §§ 4, 5. As in the case of LR–127, the people may vote in a referendum upon matters referred to them upon order of the Legislature. Mont. Const. art. III, § 5. The Montana Constitution allows Montana citizens to go to court and present pre-election challenges to the manner in which a referendum qualifies for the ballot. Mont. Const. art. IV, § 7(2) (enacted as Const. Amend. No. 21, approved November 6, 1990). This Court has original jurisdiction as provided in § 3–2–202, MCA, to review the Attorney General's ballot statements for referred measures and the Attorney General's legal sufficiency determination in an action brought under § 13–27–316, MCA. The petitioners have invoked those constitutional and statutory provisions in this action.1

¶ 8 Montana law requires the Attorney General to examine proposed ballot issues “for legal sufficiency,” which means compliance with statutory and constitutional requirements governing submission of the proposed issue to the voters. Section 13–27–312(1) and -(7), MCA.2 Montana law further provides that both proponents and opponents of ballot measures may initiate original proceedings in this Court to challenge the sufficiency of the Attorney General's review. Section 13–27–316, MCA. This Court is required to examine the issue and to “render a decision as to the adequacy of the ballot statements or the correctness of the attorney general's determination.” Section 13–27–316(3)(c), MCA.

¶ 9 For many decades the Legislature has limited the number of words that may appear in the title of matters that it refers to the people for a referendum vote. See e.g. State ex rel. Bonner v. Dixon, 59 Mont. 58, 195 P. 841 (1921). The current limitation, in place since 1979, provides that [a]ll bills referred by the legislature to a vote of the people shall have a title of no more than 100 words.” Section 5–4–102, MCA. The 100–word limitation applies only to measures that the Legislature refers to the people for a vote.

¶ 10 The Petitioners' challenge to LR–127 is that it violates § 5–4–102, MCA, because the title exceeds 100 words. The title to LR–127 is:


THE GENERAL ELECTION IRRESPECTIVE OF PARTY AFFILIATION; ELIMINATING SEPARATE PARTY BALLOTS AND PROVIDING FOR ONE PRIMARY BALLOT CONTAINING ALL PRIMARY RACES; PROVIDING THAT THE PROPOSED ACT BE SUBMITTED TO THE QUALIFIED ELECTORS OF MONTANA; AMENDING SECTIONS 2–16–615, 5–2–402, 5–2–403, 5–2–404, 5–2–406, 7–2–2219, 7–3–176, 7–3–218, 7–3–313, 7–3–412, 7–3–512, 7–3–704, 7–3–1256, 7–4–2106, 7–4–2206, 7–4–2302, 7–4–2310, 7–4–4112, 13–1–101, 13–1–103, 13–4–102, 13–10–201, 13–10–203, 13–10–204, 13–10–209, 13–10–211, 13–10–301, 13–10–325, 13–10–326, 13–10–327, 13–10–402, 13–10–403, 13–10–404, 13–10–405, 13–10–501, 13–10–504, 13–10–505, 13–12–201, 13–12–202, 13–12–203, 13–12–205, 13–12–207, 13–13–214, 13–13–225, 13–13–241, 13–14–111, 13–14–112, 13–14–113, 13–14–114, 13–14–115, 13–14–117, 13–14–118, 13–15–201, 13–15–205, 13–15–206, 13–15–208, 13–15–405, 13–15–406, 13–15–507, 13–16–101, 13–16–201, 13–16–211, 13–16–412, 13–16–418, 13–16–419, 13–16–501, 13–17–103, 13–19–205, 13–21–205, 13–25–101, 13–25–201, 13–25–205, 13–25–303, 13–35–106, 13–35–205, 13–35–206, 13–35–207, 13–35–214, 13–35–218, 13–35–221, 13–35–225, 13–35–226, 13–36–101, 13–36–102, 13–36–103, 13–36–104, 13–36–201, 13–36–202, 13–36–203, 13–36–206, 13–36–207, 13–36–209, 13–36–210, 13–36–211, 13–36–212, 13–37–127, 13–37–216, 13–37–218, 13–38–101, AND 13–38–201, MCA; REPEALING SECTIONS 13–10–302, 13–38–101, AND 13–38–201, MCA; REPEALING SECTIONS 13–10–302, 13–10–303, 13–10–305, 13–10–311, 13–10–502, 13–10–503, 13–10–507, 13–10–601, 13–10–602, 13–10–604, AND 13–38–204, MCA; AND PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE DATE AND AN APPLICABILITY DATE.

The point of disagreement between the Petitioners and the Attorney General is whether to count the many statutes listed in the title of LR–127 as “words” under § 5–4–102, MCA. These citations list each section of the Montana Code that must be either amended or repealed to effectuate the Legislature's proposal for a new primary election system. Petitioners assert that each of these statutory citations must be considered as a word, while the Attorney General urges that statutory citations are not words and should not count in determining compliance with § 5–4–102, MCA. There are three alternatives for applying § 5–4–102, MCA: ignore all the statutory citations; count each of the statutory citations as one word; or treat each of the statutory citations as the number of words required to say the citation (“13–12–203” would be counted as “thirteen, twelve, two zero three” for a total of five words). The only way to find that the title complies with § 5–4–102, MCA, is to ignore each of the statutory citations.

¶ 11 The closest judicial decision that bears upon this issue is Bonner. In that case this Court considered a post-election challenge to an initiative that had been approved by the voters. The statute in effect at that time (1921) imposed a ten-word limit on the title of such a measure as it would appear on the ballot. The title of the initiative contained the number “$5,000,000,” and the dispute was whether that should be counted as one word or three under the statute (if three words, it would be read as “five million dollars.”).3 This Court ultimately determined that even if the number were read as three words the title would only violate the ten-word limit by two words. The Court determined that no person could have been misled by the title even if it violated the ten-word limit by two words, and such a minor technical violation of the statute was not sufficient to defeat the will of the voters who had already enacted the provision. Bonner, 59 Mont. at 87, 195 P. at 848.

¶ 12 The Bonner case is instructive on several points applicable to the current proceeding. First, when applying a statute limiting the number of words in the title of a ballot measure, this Court clearly decided the case based upon the underlying assumption that numbers count as words. If the number in the title had not been considered to be at least one word, there would have been no basis for the controversy and no need for the decision. Second, the Court determined that a minor or technical violation of a statute limiting the number of words in a title will not automatically invalidate an initiative already enacted by the people. Third, an important consideration in determining the materiality of a violation of a statutory word limit is whether voters could have been misled. LR–127 does not withstand scrutiny when examined using any of these criteria.

¶ 13 The Legislature has not specifically defined “word” for purposes of § 5–4–102, MCA. “Word” is defined in Montana law as part of the term “folio,” which means “100 words, counting every two letters or numbers necessarily used as a word.” 4Section 1–1–203(3), MCA. This equation of words and numbers is significant because [w]henever the meaning of a word or phrase is defined in any part of this code, such definition is applicable to the same word or phrase wherever it occurs, except where a contrary intention plainly appears.” Section 1–2–107, MCA. This Court has applied that rule of statutory construction on numerous occasions. Dept. of Revenue v. Gallatin Outpatient Clinic, 234 Mont. 425, 430, 763 P.2d 1128, 1131 (1988); State v. Merry, 2008 MT 288, ¶ 12, 345 Mont. 390, 191 P.3d 428;Graziano v. Stock Farm Homeowners Assoc., 2011 MT 194, ¶ 32, 361 Mont. 332, 258 P.3d 999.

¶ 14 Other authorities also support the conclusion that numbers and discrete combinations of...

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  • Hoffman v. State
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • April 2, 2014
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