By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Montana's Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a state judge could not amend a 30-day sentence he handed down to an ex-teacher who was convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl, paving the way for prosecutors to appeal a sentence that has drawn a barrage of criticism.
District Judge G. Todd Baugh last week sentenced former Billings high school teacher Stacey Rambold to 30 days in jail for the 2007 rape of Cherice Moralez in his home. He said the girl, who killed herself before the case went to trial, seemed older than her 14 years and was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her teacher.
The sentence and the judge's remarks sparked outrage among women's groups and victims' advocates.
As the outcry grew and after prosecutors vowed to appeal the sentence, Baugh apologized for his remarks and later called a hearing to review and possibly amend the sentence, something that the state attorney general challenged as outside Baugh's legal authority.
The state Supreme Court agreed, ruling 4-2 that Baugh could not unilaterally amend the sentence himself and ordering the planned hearing halted.
"We conclude that the stated intent of the District Court (Baugh) to alter the initially imposed oral sentence in today's scheduled hearing is unlawful and that the proceeding should be arrested," the court ruled, without commenting on the validity of the sentence itself.
The Supreme Court on Friday declined to take up immediately whether the sentencing was lawful.
Prosecutors had vowed to appeal the sentence - a 15-year term with all but a month suspended - as unlawfully lenient, saying Rambold should probably have received a minimum of two years of prison time under state law.
Rambold, 54, was charged in 2008 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, the equivalent of a rape charge in Montana, linked to Moralez, who had been a student in a technology class he taught at Senior High School in Billings.
Moralez killed herself in 2010 before the case could go to trial, hampering a prosecution that hinged on her testimony. Her mother, Auliea Hanlon, has said Rambold's actions were a "major factor" in her daughter's decision to take her own life.
The death led prosecutors later that year to strike a deal in which Rambold admitted to a single count of rape in exchange for a three-year postponement of the case and dismissal if he completed sex offender treatment.
Prosecutors reinstated the case after being notified last year that Rambold, who was suspended in 2008 from his teaching post and later surrendered his teaching certificate, had been dismissed from the program for violating its rules.
In April, Rambold pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse without consent stemming from the 2007 assault. Baugh did not immediately respond to requests for comment and Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, declined to comment.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)