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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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Screening Panel Weighs High Court Applicants in Montana

The Judicial Nomination Commission has invited applications from attorneys interested in succeeding former Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris, who recently was confirmed to the federal bench.

The application period closes Feb. 12, and after that, the public will have 30 days to comment on the applicants. Then the screening commission must make recommendations in a month to Gov. Steve Bullock for appointment, according to the Associated Press. The panel recommends three to five candidates.

Meanwhile a different Associated Press article reported that state Supreme Court Justice Brian Rice, filing to seek a third eight-year term, voiced his support for choosing judges by elections and said they make judges accountable.

When retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visited the state in 2010, she advocated for switching to an appointive system for selecting judges and said an initial judicial appointment would be followed by a retention (yes-or-no) election in that system, thereby assuring accountability. Last year Justice O’Connor joined Justice at Stake as its First Honorary Chair.

The appointive process to fill ex-Justice Morris’ seat is one that Montana uses for filling unexpired judicial terms.

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How Next Montana Supreme Court Justice Will be Picked

Because a Montana Supreme Court justice, Brian Morris, was confirmed on Thursday by the Senate for a federal district court judgeship, a merit selection process used to fill judicial vacancies will be geared up to help pick his successor on the state’s highest court.

An explanatory article in the Missoulian described the procedures to be used in filling both the vacancy created by Morris’ getting a federal district judgeship and also state District Judge Susan Watters’ winning confirmation for a federal district judgeship (see Gavel Grab).

The Judicial Nominating Commission recommends three to five candidates, and the governor picks one of them to fill a vacancy. The governor’s appointment is subject to Montana Senate confirmation. 

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From Montana: Editorial Urges Senate Action on Judges

A Billings Gazette editorial, reflecting on obstructionist politics that have delayed confirmation of two non-controversial judges for the federal trial bench in Montana, expresses hope that a recent U.S. Senate rules change will lead to confirmation of the pair.

Two of Montana’s three federal trial court seats are vacant, and they are deemed “judicial emergencies,” the editorial says, adding, “With too few judges, justice is delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The nominees are Yellowstone County District Court Judge Susan Watters and Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris.  ”It is time for the Senate to do its job: Allow the president to fulfill his constitutional duty to appoint U.S. judges so the judicial branch can do its job,” the editorial adds.

The Senate voted to change its rules and eliminate filibusters of cabinet nominees and federal judges other than Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Ex-Justice From Montana Sees Looming Threat to Fair Courts

The impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling will come to “dominate judicial elections” and destroy fair and impartial courts if citizens and leaders are not vigilant, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson writes in a Missoulian commentary.

Justice Nelson bases much of his column on a recent report issued by the American Constitution Society entitled “Justice at Risk.” It documented a correlation between donations by business groups to judicial campaigns and state supreme court justices voting in favor of business interests (see Gavel Grab).

“Montanans demand a judicial system that is grounded in two bedrock principles – impartiality and independence. Those principles are threatened when corporate and special-interest money drive judicial elections. The proof is found in an objective, non-partisan report: ‘Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions,’” he writes.

Moreover, Justice Nelson says the report points to “significant impact on judicial impartiality” from a flood of expenditures following Citizens United. In the opinion, a 5-4 majority  lifted key restraints on political spending by corporations and unions. Read more

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Montana Senate Passes Bill to Disclose Hidden Political Money

Montana’s state Senate passed 29-21 a bill to bring greater disclosure of the hidden political money that flows through third-party political groups, the Associated Press reported.

“It’s about transparency and accountability. This bill is designed to address dark money that hides behind a curtain of secrecy and works in an environment that, I think, stifles debate,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, the bill sponsor and a Republican.

“People will speak. They will just hires lot of lawyers and lots of consultants to work around this bill,” contended Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, also a Republican. “You are not going to see all the disclosure you want.”

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Three Women to Sit on Montana Supreme Court for First Time

Montana Supreme Court Justice Laurie McKinnon (photo) took the oath of office on Monday, marking the first time in state history that three women have sat on the bench. McKinnon will join fellow Justices Beth Baker and Patricia Cotter, according to KPAX News.

McKinnon defeated Ed Sheehy for the seat in November, and will be taking the place of retired Justice James Nelson. She previously served as a District Court Judge, and was an attorney for 20 years.

“I can’t promise I’ll issue decisions that everybody will be happy with, but I will issue decisions that are based on reverent study of the law, and I will consider every argument presented to be fair and impartial,” McKinnon said during the ceremony.

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Montana Voters Show Distaste for Citizens United

Montana’s Initiative 166 related to campaign finance was overwhelmingly passed with 75% of the vote on Tuesday. Initiative 166 calls for the Montana congressional delegation to propose a constitutional amendment for overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Initiative 166 came five months after the high court “threw out” Montana’s 1912 anti-corruption law that prohibited independent expenditures by corporations on state elections (see Gavel Grab).

The Citizens United decision equates political expenditures to political speech. According to the article, a proposed constitutional amendment would establish that “corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights.” Read more

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Pro-Business Group Slams Montana Court Candidate in Ad

The Montana Growth Network, a non-profit and pro-business group, has funded a radio ad accusing state Supreme Court candidate Ed Sheehy of having worked as an activist against the death penalty.

Sheehy dismissed the charge as a falsehood and asked his rival, District Judge Laurie McKinnon, to denounce the advertisement and demand its withdrawal, a Missoulian article said.

State Sen. Jason Priest, a board member for the Montana Growth Network, declined to disclose its financial backers. To learn about the group’s past expenditures in support of Judge McKinnon, and some of Priest’s controversial background, see Gavel Grab.

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