Montana Survey of Appellate Bar and Trial Bench

The Montana Supreme Court last month became the first high court and only the second state appellate court (see the Oregon Court of Appeal’s 2007 Bench and Bar Survey) to survey members of the state’s appellate bar and trial bench about how well they believe the state high court is performing. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, it made a summary of the survey results public almost immediately.

As explained by Montana Chief Justice Karla M. Gray in a cover letter posted on the Supreme Court’s website yesterday ( see Montana Bar and Bench Survey Results), the Court asked nearly 1,000 appellate lawyers, as well as all of Montana’s District Court Judges and the University of Montana Law School teaching faculty, for their thoughts on the Court’s performance.

Respondents rated the Court’s performance in areas central to its primary obligations, including whether the Court’s decisions are based on facts and applicable law, whether the Court’s published opinions explain deviations from established law and the adoption of new developments in law, and whether the Court treats judges and attorneys with courtesy and respect. The survey also inquired about the Court’s timeliness in completing its overall workload and issuing opinions.

On the one hand, over 90% of the respondents believed that the Court does a good job in providing information about its roles, procedures, and operations, and that it treats trial court judges with courtesy and respect. Eight out of ten said that the Court’s published opinions clearly state the appropriate rule of law, identity and apply standards of review, and provide instructions on remand; an even higher number agree that the Court treats attorneys with courtesy and respect. Regarding attorney discipline, nearly eight out of ten respondents agreed that the Court’s attorney disciplinary process is fair and that sanctions imposed on attorneys are proportionate to the misconduct.

On the other hand, survey respondents rated the Court lowest in the area of timeliness, an area that “obviously needs the Court’s earliest attention,” Chief Justice Gray acknowledged.

“The survey results provide us with valuable insights about our strengths and weaknesses,” Chief Justice Gray said in her letter. “We are convinced that by asking ‘How are we doing?’-- and learning from and acting on the responses -- the Montana Supreme Court will improve and provide an even stronger system of justice for Montana.”

The survey used by Montana is a close adaptation of Measure 1 Constituent Survey prescribed by the Appellate CourTools, currently under development by the National Center for State Courts (see working paper available at ). Survey items are derived, in part, from published performance standards that are applicable to every state appellate court system including the standards articulated in the Appellate Court Performance Standards (1995) and the Appellate Court Performance Standards and Measures (1999) developed by the Appellate Court Performance Commission and the National Center for State Courts.

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