Meyer v. Jacobsen

Decision Date17 May 2022
Docket NumberDA 21-0378
Citation408 Mont. 369,510 P.3d 52
Parties John MEYER, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Christi JACOBSEN, in her official capacity as Secretary of State; and Eric Semerad, in his official capacity as Gallatin County Election Administrator, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: John Meyer, Self-Represented, Bozeman, Montana

For Appellee Christi Jacobsen : Dale Schowengerdt, E. Lars Phillips, Crowley Fleck PLLP, Helena, Montana, Austin Markus James, Montana Secretary of State Chief Legal Counsel, Helena, Montana

For Appellee Eric Semerad: Erin L. Arnold, Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney, Bozeman, Montana

Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 John Meyer sought to run as an Independent candidate for Montana Attorney General in the 2020 general election, but the Gallatin County Election Administrator (Administrator) denied his petition for nomination forms because they contained only electronic signatures. Meyer filed a complaint against the Secretary of State (Secretary) and the Administrator alleging that they violated Montana election laws and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA). He appeals the District Court's dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim that the Election Officials violated Montana law when they rejected his petition for nomination. We affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶2 Meyer intended to run as an Independent candidate in the 2020 election for Montana Attorney General. Ineligible to participate in the primary election, Meyer sought to add his name to the general election ballot through the petition for nomination process established by Title 13, chapter 10, part 5, MCA. To satisfy the requirements of the statute, Meyer needed to submit signatures of at least five percent of the total vote cast for the successful candidate for Attorney General in the previous general election. In March 2020, Meyer submitted five petition for nomination forms to the Gallatin County Election Office containing only electronic signatures. Meyer claimed he was unable to gather "wet ink" signatures due to the Governor's stay-at-home directive issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Administrator refused to process Meyer's petition forms because they contained only electronic signatures.

¶3 Later that month, Meyer filed a complaint against the Administrator and the Secretary, seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the Election Office to accept his petition forms and a declaration that the office violated Montana election laws and the UETA. The District Court granted the Administrator's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on the ground that neither Montana election laws nor the UETA required the Administrator to accept electronic signatures. The court then granted Meyer's motion for default judgment against the Secretary, who had not yet responded to the complaint. When the Secretary advised the court that she had not been properly served, the District Court vacated the default judgment. It held that its dismissal of Meyer's complaint fully and finally determined Meyer's claims against the Secretary as well.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶4 We review a district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim de novo. Doty v. Mont. Comm'r of Political Practices , 2007 MT 341, ¶ 9, 340 Mont. 276, 173 P.3d 700. On motion to dismiss under M. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the district court construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and takes all non-conclusory allegations of fact as true. Doty , ¶ 9 ; Barthel v. Barretts Minerals, Inc. , 2021 MT 232, ¶ 9, 405 Mont. 345, 496 P.3d 541. Dismissal of the complaint is proper if the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief based on any set of facts that could be proven to support the claim. Doty , ¶ 9.

¶5 We review a trial court's "interpretation and construction of a statute or rule of law" de novo. Kluver v. PPL Mont., LLC , 2012 MT 321, ¶ 19, 368 Mont. 101, 293 P.3d 817 (citation omitted).

DISCUSSION

¶6 Meyer argues that the Administrator violated Montana election laws and the UETA when he refused to accept the electronic signatures that Meyer submitted in support of his petition for nomination.1 Defendants assert that Meyer's claim is moot because the election occurred in November 2020, and the District Court can no longer grant meaningful relief. Alternatively, Defendants contend the District Court correctly concluded that neither Montana election laws nor the UETA require the Administrator to accept electronic signatures. Because mootness is a threshold question, we address this argument first.

a. Mootness

¶7 The Montana Constitution limits the judicial power of the courts to "justiciable controversies." Advocates for Sch. Trust Lands v. State , 2022 MT 46, ¶ 18, 408 Mont. 39, 505 P.3d 825 (citing Greater Missoula Area Fed'n of Early Childhood Educators v. Child Start, Inc. , 2009 MT 362, ¶ 22, 353 Mont. 201, 219 P.3d 881 ) (other citations omitted); Mont. Const. art. VII, § 4 (1) ("The district court has original jurisdiction in all ... civil matters and cases at law and in equity."). A court lacks jurisdiction to decide a case that does not present a justiciable controversy. Greater Missoula , ¶ 23 ("[C]ourts lack jurisdiction to decide moot issues insofar as an actual ‘case or controversy’ no longer exists[.]"). "Justiciability therefore is a threshold requirement that must be met before a court may grant relief." Advocates , ¶ 18 (citation omitted). "The central concepts of justiciability have been elaborated into more specific categories of doctrines, including standing, ripeness, and mootness." Advocates , ¶ 19 (citation and quotation omitted).

¶8 "Mootness is the doctrine of standing set in a time frame: The requisite personal interest that must exist at the commencement of the litigation (standing) must continue throughout its existence (mootness)." Greater Missoula , ¶ 23 (citation and quotation omitted). If the controversy presented at the outset of the litigation "has ceased to exist or is no longer ‘live,’ " or if an intervening event or change in circumstances leaves the court unable "to grant effective relief or to restore the parties to their original positions, then the issue before the court is moot." Greater Missoula , ¶ 23 (citations omitted).

¶9 Though a case presents only moot questions, it may be eligible nonetheless for judicial review if it meets an exception to mootness. Skinner Enters. v. Lewis & Clark City-Cty. Health Dep't , 1999 MT 106, ¶ 12, 294 Mont. 310, 980 P.2d 1049. Our cases have recognized several such exceptions to the doctrine. See Ramon v. Short , 2020 MT 69, ¶ 21, 399 Mont. 254, 460 P.3d 867 (citing Gateway Opencut Mining Action Grp. v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs , 2011 MT 198, ¶ 14, 361 Mont. 398, 260 P.3d 133 (recognizing the "public interest" exception)); Havre Daily News, LLC v. City of Havre , 2006 MT 215, ¶ 34, 333 Mont. 331, 142 P.3d 864 (adopting the "voluntary cessation" exception); In re N.B. , 190 Mont. 319, 323, 620 P.2d 1228, 1231 (1980) (adopting the "capable of repetition, yet could evade review" exception) (citing Roe v. Wade , 410 U.S. 113, 125, 93 S. Ct. 705, 713, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973) ).

¶10 To prove that a given situation is capable of repetition, yet could evade review, a party must show: (1) the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to the cessation or expiration of the action; and (2) there was a reasonable expectation the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action. In re Mental Health of D.V. , 2007 MT 351, ¶ 30, 340 Mont. 319, 174 P.3d 503 ; Sch. Dist. v. Bd. of Pers. Appeals , 214 Mont. 361, 364, 692 P.2d 1261, 1263 (1985) (citing Sosna v. Iowa , 419 U.S. 393, 400-01, 95 S. Ct. 553, 557-58, 42 L.Ed.2d 532 (1975) ). The party invoking the exception bears the burden of establishing these two elements. Serena Vista, L.L.C. v. State Dep't of Nat. Res. & Conserv. , 2008 MT 65, ¶ 15, 342 Mont. 73, 179 P.3d 510. This exception typically applies "to situations involving governmental action where it is feared that the challenged action will be repeated." Missoula City-Cty. Air Pollution Control Bd. v. Bd. of Envtl. Review , 282 Mont. 255, 264-65, 937 P.2d 463, 469 (1997) (citation omitted). "Election cases often fall within this exception because the inherently brief duration of an election is almost invariably too short to enable full litigation on the merits." Porter v. Jones , 319 F.3d 483, 490 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Norman v. Reed , 502 U.S. 279, 287-88, 112 S. Ct. 698, 704-05, 116 L.Ed.2d 711 (1992) ) (other citations omitted).

¶11 As the Secretary correctly points out, Meyer's requests for relief—a declaration that the Administrator violated Montana election laws and the UETA and a writ of mandamus requiring the Administrator to accept Meyer's petition forms—were specific to the 2020 election, which concluded nearly two years ago. The Secretary therefore is correct that Meyer's claims as pled are moot because "the court is unable due to an intervening event or change in circumstances" to grant the relief Meyer's complaint sought "or to restore the parties to their original positions." See Greater Missoula , ¶ 23. See also Moore v. Ogilvie , 394 U.S. 814, 816, 89 S. Ct. 1493, 1494, 23 L.Ed.2d 1 (1969) ; Ariz. Green Party v. Reagan , 838 F.3d 983, 987-88 (9th Cir. 2016) ; Libertarian Party v. Herrera , 506 F.3d 1303, 1305 n.1 (10th Cir. 2007) ; Lawrence v. Blackwell , 430 F.3d 368, 371 (6th Cir. 2005) ; Misso v. Oliver , 666 So. 2d 1366, 1368-69 (Miss. 1996) (all cases finding that requests for relief specific to a completed election were moot).

¶12 We turn to Meyer's argument that a valid exception to the mootness doctrine applies. See Moore , 394 U.S. at 816, 89 S. Ct. at 1494 ; Ariz. Green Party , 838 F.3d at 987-88 ; Libertarian Party , 506 F.3d at 1305 n.1 ; Lawrence , 430 F.3d at 371-72 ; Mi...

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