HELENA - A group of Montana voters - including several 1972 Constitutional Convention delegates - filed suit Wednesday to invalidate a 2012 ballot measure that would require Montana Supreme Court justices to be elected by district, instead of statewide.

The lawsuit said the referendum, which was placed on the June 2012 primary election ballot by the 2011 Legislature, would illegally amend the state constitution and therefore should be stricken from the ballot.

It also said passage of Legislative Referendum 119, or LR-119, would restrict voters' constitutional right to vote for any Supreme Court justice candidate in the November 2012 general election and potentially disqualify Supreme Court candidates who succeed in the June 2012 primary election.

"The referendum is illegal, unconstitutional and void, in that it deprives (voters) of their right to vote for certain Supreme Court candidates," said the suit, which was filed in state District Court at Helena.

LR-119 is the result of Senate Bill 268, which was sponsored by Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, and approved by the Legislature in April.

It is scheduled to be on the June 5, 2012, primary election ballot.

Montana's seven Supreme Court justices currently are elected on a statewide basis to eight-year terms, including the chief justice.

If voters endorse LR-119, each of the justices would be elected from seven judicial districts, representing a geographic section of the state. They'd have to be from the districts that elect them.

Balyeat argued during the Legislature that creating Supreme Court justice districts would enable more "quality candidates" to run for the court in local races, allowing their local reputation to impact their election.

Other supporters of the measure noted that most justices elected to the Supreme Court come from Helena or within a 150-mile radius of the capital.

Legal groups and civil-rights groups opposed the measure, saying it would encourage judicial activism as well as violate the state constitution.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday said LR-119 essentially amends several sections of the state constitution that set out qualifications for Supreme Court justice candidates and the selection of the court's chief justice.

Two-thirds of the Legislature must agree to place a proposed constitutional change on the ballot, and SB268 did not receive that many votes, the suit noted. It was approved by 89 legislators, rather than 100, which would be two-thirds.

The suit also said if candidates running for an open Supreme Court seat next year on a statewide basis win the June primary election, and LR-119 passes, they could be disqualified from running in November because they might live in the district assigned to the open seat.

Finally, the lawsuit said "should this illegal referendum be placed on the 2012 primary (election) ballot," it would cost an extra $130,000 to distribute special voter-information pamphlets on the referendum.

Balyeat could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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