The court system in Montana is comprised of multiple local courts, small claims courts, district courts and a supreme court. The local courts are courts of original jurisdiction, and hear most cases on a local basis for the first time. Small claims courts are dedicated courts which only hear small claims cases, and district courts hear appeals from the local courts. The Montana Supreme Court then hears any appeals from district court decisions or those which it has original jurisdiction over.
Montana Local Courts
There are 62 Justice of the Peace Courts, three Justice Courts of Record, 81 City Courts and 5 Municipal Courts at the local level in Montana. Justice of the Peace Court hears civil cases involving not more than $5,000 in claims, misdemeanor DUI and traffic cases, preliminary hearings for criminal cases and small claims of less than $3000. There is at least one of these courts in each county. Judges who serve this court are either elected or appointed, and do not need to be lawyers.
City Court exercises the same jurisdiction as the Justice of the Peace Court, but also hears cases relating to city matters. Municipal Courts are also similar to Justice of the Peace Court, except the judge must qualify to sit as a District Court judge. Justice Courts of Record are like the Justice of the Peace Court, except that transcripts of court proceedings are recorded. There are 5 judges who serve this court.
Montana District Court
The Montana District Court hears appeals from lower level courts and exercises jurisdiction over contract and property rights, criminal cases, domestic relations, estate and civil appeals. Water Court hears cases exclusively regarding existing water rights. Workers' Compensation Court hears cases of workers' compensation claims. There are 22 district courts in Montana with 56 judges.
Montana Supreme Court
Montana's Supreme Court is the appellate court which hears appeals after they have been decided by the District, Water or Workers' Compensation Court. There are a total of 7 justices in the Supreme Court. This branch of the court system also exercises original jurisdiction in cases of inmates requesting release from jail while awaiting trial, or when a case is questioning statutes or the state's constitution instead of facts; for example, term limits for court justices.
Montana Other Special Courts
Montana also has special courts designated for juvenile cases and drug-specific cases. There are 22 youth courts in the state and 20 drug courts as of 2009.
Montana Notable Court Cases
The Montana Supreme Court made a landmark decision in 2009 in Baxter v. Montana, stating that doctors should be protected from prosecution in cases of assisted suicide with a terminally ill patient. The justices in the majority cited a 1985 case which addressed withdrawing treatment for terminally ill patients in their opinions. However, the decision did not address whether a patient had a constitutional right to assisted suicide.
In 2014, the same court reversed its own prior ruling in a case brought by Brian Shoof, allowing a government agency to be sued for lack of openness without proving personal injury. Shoof filed his case after learning that Custer County officials were allowed to receive cash payments in lieu of health insurance premiums as a result of a meeting closed to the public. Shoof claimed that this policy did not comply with the state's right-to-know laws.