By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - The Montana Supreme Court overturned on Wednesday a one-month prison sentence given to a former teacher for the rape of a 14-year-old student, a penalty that sparked outrage and drew criticism from women's groups as too lenient.
Montana district Judge G. Todd Baugh drew fierce public criticism last year when he sentenced the teacher, Stacey Rambold, to just a month in prison for the 2007 sexual assault of his student, Cherice Moralez, who later killed herself.
Baugh fueled the public outrage by saying during Rambold's sentencing hearing that the teenager seemed older than her years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as the Billings high school teacher.
On Wednesday, the high court ordered the case assigned to a different judge for re-sentencing as it ruled the sentence - technically 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended and credit for one day served - was too lenient.
The court noted that state law requires at least a four-year sentence for a defendant guilty of raping a victim under age 16, and no more than two years of that can be suspended.
"The district court lacked authority to suspend all but 31 days of Rambold's sentence, and its judgment is therefore reversed," Justice Michael Wheat said in the opinion, joined by five other justices.
Rambold was charged in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, stemming from an assault of Moralez in his home. But the teen killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial, crippling a prosecution that hinged on her testimony.
In a plea deal that year, Rambold admitted to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent, and prosecutors agreed to postpone the case and dismiss it if he completed sex offender treatment.
The case was reinstated after Rambold was dismissed from a treatment program for violating its rules, and prosecutors sought a 20-year prison term with half of it suspended.
The Montana Judicial Standards Commission had recommended the state Supreme Court discipline Judge Baugh, who became the target of a campaign to unseat him. The high court's opinion said that decision would come later.
Baugh, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, plans to retire at the end of this year. An attorney for Moralez' mother also declined comment.
Marian Bradley, president of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for Women, welcomed Wednesday's ruling.
"It sends a clear message to the judiciary that women in Montana and women across the nation will not stand for the injustice and misconduct that ensued in this case and which in all likelihood have caused the mishandling of rape cases elsewhere," she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)