This week, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen formally responded to a complaint alleging professional misconduct, characterizing it as “highly irregular” and defending his actions in the dispute between the Montana Legislature and the state Supreme Court.
In a 50-page response submitted on Monday to the state Commission on Practice by lawyers representing Knudsen, both private and from the Attorney General’s Office, they refuted the claim that his conduct during the 2021 dispute violated any attorney conduct rules. They argued for the complete dismissal of the complaint, asserting that the Montana Commission on Practice had never encountered a disciplinary complaint of this nature before.
The complaint, filed in September by Missoula attorney, Timothy Strauch, a longtime Democrat donor and activist, serving as special counsel, outlined 41 counts alleging violations of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct. The allegations primarily centered on accusations that Knudsen and his legal team disobeyed a court obligation, made statements about judges’ integrity, and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
The incidents in question took place in 2021 when Knudsen represented state lawmakers who issued subpoenas for internal emails from Supreme Court justices and lower court judges. The subpoenas aimed to uncover information about judges’ opinions on proposed bills being debated in the Legislature. The Montana Supreme Court later blocked the subpoenas, deeming them beyond the Legislature’s authority.
The complaint highlighted statements made by Knudsen and his attorneys, accusing justices of misbehavior and improper conduct. It also contended that Knudsen’s refusal to promptly return judicial branch emails after a court order constituted a “knowing disobedience.”
In defense, Knudsen’s legal team argued that the situation was unprecedented and politically charged, emphasizing that he was responding to credible allegations of judicial misconduct. They maintained that Knudsen’s firm stance did not violate professional conduct rules but rather upheld them, even if expressed with strong language.
The defense contended that challenging the Supreme Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court justified not returning the emails immediately. They argued against disciplining Knudsen for comments made about the judiciary, asserting that such actions would hinder legitimate discussions about judges’ improper conduct.
In conclusion, the defense called for the commission to find that Knudsen did not breach conduct rules. If found to be in violation, they argued that the rules are overly restrictive on constitutionally protected speech, potentially violating the First Amendment.
The next steps involve a scheduling conference to determine the timeline for the issue to go before the Commission on Practice. A formal hearing is expected to take place several months later, with the commission ultimately recommending to the Supreme Court whether disciplinary action against Knudsen is warranted.