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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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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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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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Group Spent Heavily in Montana Supreme Court Primary

Montana District Judge Laurie McKinnon, who recently emerged from a primary contest as one of two general election candidates for the state Supreme Court, enjoyed major financial support from an independent group that supported her with mailers.

As of mid-May, the Montana Growth Network spent $41,865 on mailers supporting Judge McKinnon in a June primary, according to a Helena Independent Record article. That amount surpassed the $36,834 that the candidate had raised herself through May 16.

The Montana Growth Network was founded by Jason Priest, now a state senator. He was described in Slate last year as “a Republican who ran on a tea party platform.” In 2010, Priest made news in the Billings Gazette after referring on Facebook to the economist John Maynard Keynes as “a big homo.” Priest also accused President Obama of “giving America … the dry thumb.”

Priest, who serves as treasurer for Montana Growth Network, said he would disclose its donors only when he was required to do so, the recent Helena Independent article said.

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Fundraising Already Under Way for Montana’s Supreme Court Race

Following a contentious Supreme Court election in 2014, Montana is already seeing fundraising for its primary and general Supreme Court elections this year.  That fundraising started in 2015, according to The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Describing his campaign donors as being across the political spectrum, one candidate said, “With the increasing politicization of these races in the last couple of cycles it’s important to go out and get diverse support,” according to the report.

Montana’s 2014 judicial election was highlighted in Justice at Stake’s recent report on judicial politics, Bankrolling the Bench. The state saw record-breaking spending as national groups including the Republican State Leadership Committee and Americans for Prosperity poured nearly $550,000 into the race.

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Supreme Court Reaffirms Citizens United in Montana Case

The Supreme Court has affirmed its controversial Citizens United decision, striking down a Montana law that barred indirect corporate expenditures on all state elections. By a 5-4 vote, the justices summarily reversed a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court, according to an Associated Press report.

In an unsigned decision, the five-member Supreme Court majority chose not to address questions about Citizens United raised by the Montana court, instead saying only that it violated the 2010 campaign finance ruling:

“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does. … Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent that reiterated the four-member minority’s disagreement with the initial Citizens United ruling and also its application in the Montana case.

“Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” he wrote.

Montana’s Supreme Court had found the anti-corruption law constitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked enforcement of that Montana ruling, and Montana  sought an appeal.

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Almost Half of the States Back Montana at Supreme Court

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have sided with Montana in its effort to prevent use of the Supreme Court’s  Citizens United decision to invalidate state laws that restrict corporate spending on political campaigns.

A TIME blog post about the case, centering on a century-old Montana anti-corruption statute, explains why it’s in the public eye this election year:

“Trumpeted by liberals and advocates of stricter campaign-finance regulations, the matter has mushroomed into ‘perhaps the most serious challenge to date to the Citizens United decision,’ wrote the Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel.”

But the court’s membership hasn’t changed since Citizens United was decided, and few expect the justices to reverse course. “While the Justices could issue a narrowly tailored ruling, they could also further cement the established precedent,” Alex Altman writes at the Swampland blog.

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Montana Ruling Supported at U.S. Supreme Court Rally

In front of the Supreme Court, Common Cause and other campaign finance reform groups held a rally on Thursday in hopes the court will use a Montana case to reverse its landmark Citizens United decision.

“It’s a safe bet that a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court has rarely if ever triggered a demonstration in the nation’s capital,” Tony Mauro wrote at the Blog of Legal Times. At Thursday’s event, protestors carried signs reading, “Citizens United: Worse than Dred Scott,” and “Stand with Montana.”

Common Cause president Bob Edgar told about 100 demonstrators that “billionaire political investors” have taken over the political system thanks to the Citizens United, the ruling that permitted unlimited corporate and labor union spending on elections. Gavel Grab has written about the Montana case, involving a state anticorruption campaign finance law, and requests to the nation’s highest court to review the law’s constitutionality.

Edgar took sides with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Last week, they suggested the high court use the Montana case as a vehicle to reconsider Citizens United. The Montana Supreme Court restored a ban on direct corporate spending on candidates and committees, and challengers of the ruling are seeking an appeal to the nation’s highest court.

An editorial in the Billings (Mt.) Gazette, meanwhile, said “[W]e agree” with Justices Ginsburg and Breyer.

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2/11/08: Montana Updates; Judge Says Courts Can Try Suspected Terrorists; And a Blog Post Discussing The Legitimacy of a Nebraska Supreme Court Decision

Moussaoui Judge Defends Courts Ability to Handle Terror Trials– ACS Blog
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema defends the trial courts ability to handle terrorism trials.

Constitutionally Correct Or Judicial Activism– Rhymes With Right
This blog post discusses the legitimacy of the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision to end electrocution executions.

More on Judicial Elections in Montana– Montana Street Blog
A blog post highlighting two weekend articles on Judicial elections in Montana.

Rep. Tom Lantos passes away– Think Progress
And of note outside of Justice at Stake issues, Congressman Tom Lantos, of California, passed away this morning after just informing the nation that he had cancer last month. He was 80.

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Out-of-State GOP Research Firm Looks Into MT Court Candidates

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle a Republican research firm in Florida is conducting opposition research on at least one of the nonpartisan candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court.

The newspaper writes that “a researcher at Data Targeting of Gainesville, Florida, filed on March 18 multiple requests with Cascade County officials for public information on Cascade County District Court Judge Dirk Sandefur, including his expense receipts, voting record, travel records, and case files, according to emails obtained by the Chronicle.”

According to the Chronicle the firm has a history of involvement in Montanan supreme court elections after the group filed public information requests on Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat during his 2014 campaign. Subsequent to the requests Justice Wheat was targeted by negative advertising booked by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and Americans For Prosperity. The RSLC spends frequently and openly on state races and booked over $175,000 worth of ads in this year’s Arkansas Supreme Court elections (see Gavel Grab).


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