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What Supreme Court candidates say about Montana Supreme Court politics

Montana's supposedly nonpartisan Supreme Court has come under intense partisan scrutiny in recent years, with Republicans arguing that the court's repeated rulings blocking Republican-backed legislation on constitutional grounds are evidence of a liberal bias.

Rulings that have infuriated some members of the GOP include striking down a law that would have ended voter registration on Election Day and upholding the Armstrong precedent, which interprets the state constitution's right to privacy as protecting abortion access. Republicans in the House have also criticized aspects of the court's administrative practices and created special committees to investigate the court's internal conduct.

Democrats, for their part, argue that the court is the state's only check on conservative excesses, since Montana's legislature and governorship are under Republican control. Republicans' criticism of the court, they claim, is not aimed at promoting transparency but at opening the door to partisan control.

Two of seven seats on the Supreme Court, including that of Chief Justice, are open in this year's election because incumbents Mike McGrath and Dirk Sandefur have decided not to run for additional eight-year terms.

As part of our 2024 Election Guide project, the Montana Free Press asked the six candidates vying for the court's two open seats how they would frame the stakes in this year's judicial election. Their answers, submitted via a written questionnaire, have been lightly edited for grammar but have not been fact-checked and are otherwise reproduced verbatim.

OUR QUESTIONS

What do you think is at stake for the Montana Supreme Court in this election, both for ordinary Montanans and for the Montana Constitution?

CANDIDATES FOR THE SUPREME JUDICIAL OFFICE

Jerry Lynch

The stakes couldn't be higher in this election. Montanans of all political stripes are facing attacks on their constitutional rights and attempts by partisan extremists and out-of-state corporate interests to wrest control of government from the people. Montana's Constitution is a living document whose power comes from the consent of the governed. If we ignore it, degrade it, or allow it to be undermined by whichever political party holds the majority, we will have only ourselves to blame if our government stops working. Instead, we must elect leaders of the judiciary whose goal is not partisan gain, but protecting our constitutional rights and providing government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Cory Swanson

To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, the quickest way to avoid politics is to stop deciding cases on politics.

The Supreme Court should focus on old-fashioned appellate procedures, regardless of the case pending. But some cases are inherently political. So what to do? Just focus on old-fashioned appellate procedures. Follow the rules of interpretation like you would any other case. Let the law lead to the result, don't decide the result and then change the law or overturn precedents to get there. That's fundamental to the problem and the solution.

If the judiciary simply does its job this way, then political cases will be just like any other: the loser will be upset, but the reasoning will be clear and unassailable. The Supreme Court should uphold the rule of law by keeping political concerns out of its legal interpretations. The law should be clear and let the political stones fall to the ground where they fall.

The third candidate for Chief Justice, Doug Marshall, did not respond to emails and a phone call requesting to participate in the survey before the MTFP voting guide was released.

CANDIDATES FOR THE JUDGESHIP OF THE SUPREME COURT

Katherine Bidegaray

The stakes are high, as our 1972 Montana Constitution and many of the unique rights it protects—privacy, education, and the preservation of Montana's pristine lands—face significant threats. The decisions of the Montana Supreme Court have a profound impact on Montanans every day, so it is critical to have judges who have the integrity, strength, and dedication to uphold our Constitution, protect and defend our Montana values ​​and rights, and ensure that justice remains fair and impartial. With 38 years of combined legal and judicial experience, I am well prepared to fulfill this obligation.

Daniel Wilson

Whether the citizens of Montana are satisfied or disappointed with the various decisions of our Supreme Court over the years, the stakes for the citizens of Montana and our Constitution are the same, no matter the year or the election. The question is whether we will have a court that respects the Constitution and the rule of law – including precedent – or whether we will have one that oversteps its own boundaries. For all Montana citizens, the answer to that question is at stake in this election.

Jerry O’Neil

All three: My campaign, my election, and my service as a Supreme Court justice will help break the monopoly that limits public access to our legal system.

O'Neil, a paralegal and former Republican congressman from Columbia Falls who never passed the Montana bar exam but was admitted to practice before the Blackfeet tribal court, is embroiled in a lengthy legal battle over his admission to practice in Montana state courts.


You can see The full MTFP 2024 voting guide can be found here.

Anna Harden

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