Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), a Democratic candidate for president, speaks to citizens of the Meskwaki Nation during a campaign visit to the tribe's settlement in Tama, Iowa, on May 21, 2019. Photo: Governor Bullock

Montana Free Press: Governor gains early win in dispute over bison bill

Judge blasts SoS Stapleton position in veto dispute
Montana Free Press

HELENA — The judge presiding over a dispute between Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Gov. Steve Bullock over the validity of the governor’s veto on a bill didn’t mince words last Wednesday.

“When I look at whether the governor has a legitimate cause, I tend to agree with him,” said Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike McMahon. “I just do not see a good faith argument by Secretary of State Stapleton.”

In ruling from the bench Wednesday, McMahon issued a preliminary injunction, which prevents Stapleton from moving ahead with placing House Bill 132, which tightens the state’s definition of “wild bison,” in state law.

Stapleton, a Republican running for governor in 2020, contends Bullock failed to properly veto HB 132 because the Secretary of State’s office received the veto paperwork too late. Attorneys for Bullock, who issued a veto memo on the bill April 29, said the governor addressed the bill in ample time.

A bison crosses the Firehole River at sunset in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service

The Montana Constitution gives the governor a 10-day deadline for acting on bills sent to his office after passing the Legislature. If a bill remains un-signed and un-vetoed after that period, it becomes law without the Governor’s signature.

At issue in the case is the exact timeframe that 10-day deadline applies to. Bullock argues the April 29 veto memo, issued four days after the bill was received, means the veto is effective even though it the official paperwork was misplaced and didn’t reach the secretary’s office until May 22.

Stapleton insists the veto isn’t complete until his office receives the paperwork, meaning HB 132 missed the deadline and becomes law. He tweeted as much May 29.

Bullock responded by filing a lawsuit. On May 31 Bullock won a temporary restraining order that prevented Stapleton from including the bill in the collection of laws passed by the 2019 Legislature while the litigation moves forward. Wednesday’s ruling affirms that order.

“What happened here was the secretary of state, for some unknown reason, decided that he could usurp the governor’s authority,” Bullock attorney Jim Molloy said in court Wednesday. “There was a fairly insignificant delay in when the secretary of state’s office received the veto message.”

“The return process is the whole act. The veto is not a specific piece of paper,” said Stapleton’s attorney, Austin James.

James also said that letting the governor hold a vetoed bill without returning it to the secretary of state’s office inadvertently gives the governor the power to “pocket veto” a bill since the secretary conducts veto override polls when the Legislature isn’t in session.

McMahon, however, wasn’t persuaded by James’ effort to explain how state law supports Stapleton’s interpretation, which he said relies on applying a deadline articulated in one piece of statute to a separate provision.

“I have a huge problem with this case,” McMahon said. “It is not a court’s prerogative to read into a statute what is not there.”

“The Secretary of State can make his argument to the Montana Supreme Court,” he concluded.

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer based in Helena. He is the lead reporter on the Long Streets Project and also covers state policy for MTFP. He has previously worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact him at or 406-544-1074.

This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press on June 5, 2019. It is published under a Creative Commons license.

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