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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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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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Ex-Justice Nelson Urges Switch to Merit Selection in Montana

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

With scathing criticism of Citizens United’s “destructive fallout” for elected state courts, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson is calling for a switch to merit selection of his state’s judges, before a “real train wreck” occurs.

In the February edition of Montana Lawyer, Justice Nelson writes a lengthy and detailed plea for a switch to merit selection, beginning with his own admission that for years he strongly supported electing Montana judges and justices. The impact of Citizens United and a $1.63 million contest for one Montana high court seat last year have helped make him a “true believer” to the contrary,  he says. His top critiques of Citizens United follow:

“First, Citizens United discourages qualified attorneys from running for judicial office. … Why would a qualified and experienced attorney choose to run for a judicial office that pays a fraction of that in the private sector; that requires the candidate to raise and spend a small fortune; and that demands the candidate, for months on end, subject herself or himself (along with their families) to a barrage of lies, misinformation and abuse from out-of-state organizations that know nothing — and care less — about the targeted candidate, Montana, its people or its Constitution and laws?

“Second, Citizens United actually encourages unqualified and inexperienced candidates to run. These types know that if they play to the out-of-state dark money folks; that if they promote the party or special interest agenda as their raison d’etre for running; and that if they mislead, dissemble and conceal their true selves, platform and motivation, then they will be able to count on the support and mega-bucks of the likes of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Koch Brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

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First Approval From Arizona House for Court Expansion Bill

ArizonaThe Arizona House has given initial approval to a Republican-sponsored measure to expand the state Supreme Court from five to seven justices. Justice at Stake has warned of “court-packing” efforts in Arizona (see Gavel Grab).

According to an Associated Press article, the high court’s government affairs director said there is no need for additional justices to handle caseload. Nonetheless, the bill’s sponsor said it would allow the court to better represent Arizona’s increased population. From other states, there were these mixed reports about progress of legislative attacks on courts: Read more

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