Basics of Montana's Legal System and Courts


By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)

Learn the basics about criminal vs. civil legal issues, your rights, the Montana court system and jurisdiction. This article also links to a Montana Judicial System lesson plan for high school students.
Resource Information

Why is the law important?

The law protects our general safety and rights as citizens. Abuses by other people, organizations, and the government itself can effect us. The law effects your life directly in both big and small ways:

On a micro level, the law impacts contracts we sign. Some examples include rental agreements, cellphone contracts, credit cards, marriage, and employment. Contracts outline our responsibilities and protect us. Laws also impact our civil rights, States’ rights to govern, and class action lawsuits. Laws are nothing but useless words if they are not enforced by the power of our legal system.

Criminal vs. Civil legal issues

There are two types of legal cases – criminal and civil. Your civil rights are found in written documents such as constitutions, contracts, court decisions, and laws (i.e. statutes). For example, your right to be free of discrimination based on gender is stated in our constitutions. The right to live at a particular address is stated in a lease agreement.

Chart outlining criminal vs civil law
What are your rights?

In criminal legal cases, the sixth amendment of the constitution states: 

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law [Jurisdiction], and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

This means that those accused of a crime have the right to:

  • A public trial without unneeded delays
  • An impartial jury (from the community where the crime happened)
  • Be informed of the charges against them
  • Be informed of the evidence against them
  • The right to a lawyer

For civil legal matters, representation is not a right. Anyone who can't afford a lawyer may be considered vulnerable. Often, it is up to you to locate the information you need and represent yourself. When you represent yourself, you are filing a case pro se.

U.S. Dual System of Courts

Article III of the Constitution creates a Judicial Branch of Government. State courts handle cases where the state law applies. Federal courts handle cases involving federal or constitutional law. Federal courts also handle violations of U.S. treaty, foreign ambassadors, or consuls. The supreme court has final authority in all legal decisions. When a decision in a lower court (state or federal) is challenged, the appeal may end up in the supreme court.

Chart explaining structure of Federal Courts
Montana Courts

Montana Supreme Court is made up of seven judges: six Associate Judges and one Chief Justice. The Montana Supreme Court is an appellate court. The Montana Supreme Court reviews cases from Montana’s district courts when the losing party appeals. People can appeal when they think the lower court decision was wrong or unfair. The Montana Supreme Court also has the authority to order a lower court to do something.

Courts of Limited Jurisdiction in Montana include Justice Courts, City Courts, and Municipal Courts. Each of these courts has slightly different jurisdiction.  Cases they may handle include misdemeanor or traffic violations, small claims, landlord/tenant disputes, local ordinances, and more.

District Courts are courts of general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction courts process:

  • felony cases
  • probate cases
  • most civil cases 
  • naturalization proceedings
  • various writs, and
  • some narrowly-defined ballot issues.

The District Courts can also hear appeals from some courts of limited jurisdiction. 

The Water Court has exclusive jurisdiction over water rights claims in Montana.

Workers’ Compensation Court (WCC) resolves issues under the Workers' Compensation Act and the Occupational Disease Act.

Other Specialty Courts include Youth Court and Drug Treatment Court. 

Chart explaining MT court structure

There are different reasons a court may get jurisdiction. Some factors include the location of the disagreement or crime, or whether the case is criminal or civil in nature. 

There are four types of jurisdiction:

  1. Exclusive – Only one court is able to hear the case.
  2. Concurrent – Two or more courts are able to hear the case.
  3. Original – A court will be the first to hear the case.
  4. Appellate – A higher court is reviewing a decision by a lower court. This is called an appeal.
How do I find the correct court?

Where a case is filed depends on many factors, including where a party lives or where an event occurs. A court must have jurisdiction or the right to hear a particular case.  If you have a question about which court would hear your case, you can call the Clerk of Court. 

The Montana Judicial Branch has a Court Locator Tool that can help you find the address and phone number of the court you are looking for. 

Want to learn more?

Montana Legal Services Association received a grant from the Montana Justice Foundation to create a lesson plan for high school educators on these topics and more. Educators and service providers can access the lesson plan, including a power point, videos, and activities to help contextualize the materials, on the Judicial Branch Lesson Plan.

Find more resources using our interactive Legal Guide.
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