Tensions continue between local judicial branch and sheriff’s office

The challenges of COVID-19 in the local legal system are straining relations between some members of the judicial branch and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office.

On Sept. 4, Judge Elizabeth Best filed an order in District Court regarding the enforcement of court orders.

The order is also signed by Judges John Kutzman and John Parker.

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She wrote that earlier this year, the Montana Supreme Court issued a directive requiring physical distancing in courtrooms and courthouses; and strongly encouraging the use of face coverings or masks for people entering the courthouse.

Three of the four local district court judges issued their own orders related to that guidance.

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“Because some of these safety measures have been politicized, the judges rely on officers of the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, and the sheriff himself, to abide by their oaths of office to protect and serve the citizens, and to enforce the authority and orders of the court,” Best wrote in her Sept. 4 order.

Best mentions the Aug. 24 incident when a man refused to wear a mask during jury selection and Judge John Larson of Missoula ended up holding him in contempt and sending the man to jail for 24 hours.

Deputies did take the man to the Cascade County jail, where he sat for 24 hours.

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“Sheriff Slaughter thereafter made more than one statement to the press, including a statement that, the mask order is ‘contentious’ and stating his personal opposition to the enforcement of mask orders. The sheriff’s statements created an impression that he and his deputies may be reluctant to enforce legally binding court orders designed to protect the public from illness and death,” Best wrote.

Slaughter told The Electric that his release stated that he had to follow the courts binding orders, regardless of whether he agreed.

“I just stated that I didn’t like it and that I didn’t agree with it and that I didn’t think we should be incarcerating people for not wearing a mask. I really don’t see the point in her order. I never indicated in any way, shape or form that I wasn’t going to follow her orders. But I don’t have to agree with them and I can use the media to tell the public that I don’t agree with a judge’s decision,” Slaughter told The Electric Friday afternoon.

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Earlier this week, concerns were raised during bail hearings in Best’s courtroom regarding the COVID-19 outbreak at the Cascade County Adult Detention Center.

Several public defenders and Best have questioned the delay in getting masks to inmates as a prevention measure.

COVID has been raised in multiple bail hearings this week and during a bail hearing in Judge Greg Pinski’s court on Sept. 2, Pinski said he wouldn’t allow testimony from medical staff regarding COVID since the bail determination would be made on the facts of the case.

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He told The Electric “judges aren’t to usurp the role of the executive or legislative branch by legislating from the bench on jail conditions. There is no pending case or controversy before the court concerning medical care at the Cascade County jail. If an inmate wishes to challenge the adequacy of medical care or conditions at the Cascade County jail, there are avenues of relief available, including a civil rights action under federal law. Challenging jail conditions under the guise of a bail hearing is improper. Jail conditions are not enumerated as a bail consideration under Montana law.”

In the order, Best states that “the court expects order to be maintained in the courtroom as provided by the U.S. and Montana Constitutions and state statutes. The court will require the sheriff’s office to uphold the law in the courtroom. The court will not condone violations of court orders.”

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Slaughter said that, “I never said we weren’t going to do it. One of the biggest points of my press release was that I have to follow it, I don’t have to like it, but I have to do it.”

Best writes in her order that Slaughter represented in the press last week that the local judges had promised him they would not require his deputies to enforce their orders that people in courtrooms wear masks.

“The sheriff misunderstood. They told him that they would prefer not to send otherwise law-abiding people to jail, but that if attendees persisted in refusing to obey court order, a contempt sanction including incarceration would have to be an option. One judge expressly told him that, ‘If you refuse to enforce my order, I will hold you in contempt.’ Sheriff Slaughter responded, ‘I understand,'” according to Best’s order.

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The orders issued by local judges earlier this year as well as interviews by The Electric with multiple officials, indicate that there were discussions of Slaughter’s uneasiness with jailing people for not wearing masks and the possibility of judges holding the sheriff in contempt if he or his deputies did not enforce the mask orders.

Slaughter said perhaps he did misunderstand what was implied in those conversations, but he said, “they told me they’d make sure I didn’t have to take people to jail over masks” and use other means to handle the issue.

Best writes that the Montana Legislature has defined the duties of the sheriff and that the Montana Code directs judges to preserve and enforce order in the courtroom.

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“Exercise of these duties includes responsibility for taking reasonable and appropriate steps to ensure the safety and protection of persons in the courtroom, particularly jurors, parties and staff, whose attendance the court requires. Disobedience of a court order in punishable by contempt,” Best wrote. “The sheriff’s office is required to maintain order in the court, to support orderly conduct of proceedings and to comply with lawful court orders. The sheriff has a duty to uphold and defend the laws, to maintain authority in the courtroom, and to arrest persons who have committed a public offense.”

Slaughter said he didn’t understand why Best was issuing the order since he has upheld court orders and intends to continue doing so. He said he’s approved, and publicly applauded, her handling of a similar mask issue in her courtroom earlier this year.

“I’m an elected official just like her, I am also accountable to the people,” Slaughter said. “They often look to the sheriff when they see an injustice in the system, and I’m entitled to my opinion. It doesn’t change what I have to do under the law.”