As the final authority for interpreting Montana statutes, the Montana Supreme Court cannot make its interpretations lightly. To guide its hand, the Court relies on the principles of statutory interpretation and the codified notion that the “law respects form less than substance.” This principle enables the Court to excuse technical deficiencies in the name of judicial efficiency and justice when it determines that the deficiency does not implicate the substance of the statute.
In In Re Petition to Transfer Territory From Vaughn Elementary School District to Power Elementary School District, the Court invoked this principle to support its conclusion that a new elementary school had met the statutory opening requirements. The Court had to reach that conclusion to protect the school from a land grab by a neighboring school district. While the Court had good intentions, its reasoning did not fully support the conclusion that the elementary school met each requirement. Rather, the Court leaned heavily on the principle of substance over form to excuse deficiencies that stood in the way of a just result. Consequently, the Court turned a carefully applied judicial gloss into a powerful trump card: a simple phrase the Court can invoke when it wants to overlook the express words of the Legislature.
Luc Brodhead, Case Note, In re Petition to Transfer Territory from Vaughn School District to Power School District: Leaning Heavily on the Principle of Substance over Form, 77 Mont. L. Rev. Online 1, https://scholarship.law.umt.edu/mlr_online/vol77/iss1/1.