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Most ‘Expensive and Partisan’ Court Race in Montana Looming?

Montana_quarter,_reverse_side,_2007Political flyers are arriving in mailboxes and PAC money is flowing. This year’s Montana Supreme Court election is “shaping up to be the most hotly contested, expensive and partisan race for the … Court the state’s ever seen,” the Missoula Independent reports.

The article documents registration by three political action committees interested in the contest (see Gavel Grab) and notes that the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which is affiliated with one of the PACs, was mentioned in a recent op-ed by six retired state Supreme Court justices.

“These various groups and organizations are inundating non-partisan judicial elections with staggering amounts of cash to accomplish their goals and to politicize otherwise non-partisan judicial races,” the retired justices wrote. “Unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that the amount of expenditures and contributions to judicial races correlates directly with how a benefiting justice votes on cases.” Read more

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JAS: Montana Court Race Part of ‘Explosion’ of Outside Spending

Two outside groups — including a national Republican group — have begun airing TV ads in Montana’s Supreme Court election. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization, said the Montana expenditures are part of soaring out-of-state spending in judicial elections.

JAS-Logo“The appearance of outside spending opens a new chapter in Montana’s Supreme Court race, especially as it includes a national group airing its first TV ads in this fall’s state Supreme Court elections,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg in a statement. “Montana is the fourth state this year to be caught up in the explosion of spending by out-of-state groups in judicial races.”

20100304214046_Brennan_Logo_2007_small (3)“The flood of special interest spending in state judicial elections is truly alarming,” added Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center. “When outside groups spend money to reshape state courts, everyone loses. Judges are forced to compete with deep-pocketed special interest groups. Montanans who appear before the court have to worry whether a judge is being influenced by special interest dollars. We need to keep politics out of our courts.” Read more

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Outside Spending Emerges as Issue in Montana Court Race

montana_supreme_courtOutside spending is becoming a central issue in the upcoming Montana Supreme Court election for two open seats, a debate on Tuesday featuring four candidates suggested.

Incumbent Justice Mike Wheat said, according to the Great Falls Tribune, “I don’t want to let us forget what this race really is all about. It’s about how our court may be under attack from out-of-state money, from out-of-state corporations who want to come into this state and influence who’s going to be on the court.”

Challenger Lawrence VanDyke retorted, “I do believe in free-speech rights of organizations to say what they believe. The issue is whether or not the trial lawyers are going to be the only ones who are spending money.” He said the Montana Trial Lawyers Association is expected to spend “high six digit figures” in support of Justice Wheat. Read more

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Ex-Justice Warns: Don’t Put Montana Judges on ‘Auction Block’

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

“Montana’s judiciary must not be forced onto the auction block,” retired state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson writes in an outspoken Montana Standard op-ed. Signing the opinion with him were retired Justices Terry Trieweiler, Jim Regnier, Bill Leaphart, Bill Hunt and John (Skeff) Sheehy.

Tracing special interest and partisan spending in recent supreme court elections held in other states, and the pouring of “dark money” into judicial elections in the wake of Citizens United, Justice Nelson says the same trends could affect Montana judicial elections and have a frightening impact.

“No Montanan wants to litigate in a court where the fix is in because the judge or justice is beholden to those who spent him or her onto the bench,” he writes. “Montanans deserve fair, impartial, independent and non-partisan judges and justices elected by Montana voters—not political hacks, bought and paid for by out of state dark money. Our civil justice system is at stake.” Read more

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Censured Montana Judge Challenges His Punishment

District Judge G. Todd Baugh of Montana, facing censure and a 31-day suspension from the state Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab) after he said a 14-year-old rape victim seemed “older than her chronological age,” says he is receiving an unprecedented punishment.

The justices took the unprecedented action of ordering his suspension when the Montana Judicial Standards Commission had not recommended it, Judge Baugh said in documents submitted to the high court, according to Reuters.

“Thus, I think, the imposition of suspension which was not recommended by the commission is unwarranted,” Judge Baugh wrote. “I will not object to you withdrawing the suspension.”

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Censure Ordered for Montana Trial Court Judge

The Montana Supreme Court ordered public censure and a 31-day suspension for a trial judge who said a 14-year-old rape victim seemed “older than her chronological age.”

District Judge G. Todd Baugh has “eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety, therefore violating the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct,” the high court said, according to News. You can learn background about the case from Gavel Grab.

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Four Advance in Montana Supreme Court Races

Two incumbent Montana Supreme Court justices are among candidates who will be on the general election ballot in November, following primary contests this week.

Justices Jim Rice and Mike Wheat were opposed by single challengers, W. David Herbert and former state Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke, respectively. According to the Associated Press, the names of all four will appear on the November ballot because the top two recipients of votes in each primary race advance.

A legal challenge is facing VanDyke’s eligibility to run for the high court.

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New Sentencing is Ordered in Rape Case From Montana

The Montana Supreme Court invalidated a trial judge’s controversial sentence of a month in prison for the convicted rapist of a 14-year-old girl, saying the judge’s “statements reflected an improper basis for his decision and cast serious doubt on the appearance of justice.”

In 2013, District Judge G. Todd Baugh handed the sentence to a former high school teacher. “It was a troubled youth,” the judge said of the victim, “but a youth who was probably as much in control of the situation as the defendant, one that was seemingly, although troubled, older than her chronological age.” The victim later took her own life.

According to the Billings Gazette, the state Supreme Court said, “The idea that (the victim) could have ‘control’ of the situation is directly at odds with the law, which holds that a youth is incapable of consent and, therefore, lacks control over the situation whatsoever.” Read more

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Two High Court Incumbents Face Challengers in Montana

Two seats on the Montana Supreme Court will be contested this year, according to news reports that followed a Monday candidate filing deadline.

Incumbent Justice Jim Rice is seeking re-election and will face a challenge from attorney W. David Herbert. The challenger earlier ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from Wyoming as a Libertarian candidate. Justice Rice is a former Republican state representative.

Incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, also seeking re-election, will be challenged by Lawrence VanDyke, the Montana solicitor general. Justice Wheat is a former Democratic state senator. VanDyke was appointed to his current post by Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican. Read more

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Punishment Weighed for Montana Judge after Rape Ruling

A Montana judge, whose light sentence for the convicted rapist of a 14-year-old girl sparked outrage, could face punishment ranging from censure to ouster, according to a Reuters report.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh was found guilty of judicial misconduct by the Montana Judicial Standards Commission, which noted that the judge ”justified the unlawful sentence by blaming the child victim.”  In 2013, the judge sentenced a former high school teacher to just 30 days in prison for raping the teenager, whom Baugh described as “older than her chronological age” (see Gavel Grab).  The victim later took her own life.

The Judicial Standards Commission now must decide whether to discipline Baugh itself or turn the case over to the state Supreme Court to decide punitive action.  The commission noted in a complaint filed with the court that Baugh had undermined public confidence in the judiciary.  Baugh has already said he will not run for reelection.


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