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Wheat, VanDyke Clash Over Partisanship In Supreme Court Race

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Jessie Mazur
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The Montana Supreme Court could have decided one of this year’s election campaigns long before November – a race for a seat on that very court.

In April, a district judge struck Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke’s name from the ballot after ruling he had not been admitted to the bar at least five years prior to the November election.

But the high court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled VanDyke was eligible, and the race between VanDyke and Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat was on. Since then the two have campaigned hard, with VanDyke accusing Wheat of being a partisan Democrat and Wheat countering VanDyke is a conservative activist with few Montana ties.

VanDyke, who was hired by Republican Attorney General Tim Fox in January 2013, said trial lawyers who support Wheat brought the lawsuit.

“It was a win-win for Wheat,” VanDyke said in an email. “Even if they lost in court, they crippled my ability to campaign effectively for months, forced me to rack up huge legal bills and tied up my resources and energies in litigation.”

Wheat said that he was not involved in the case, although he admitted to knowing the lawyers involved. Instead of his opponent’s eligibility, Wheat said he wants to focus on his own professional record in seeking full eight-year term.

Wheat is running for the first time, having been appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2010.

“I think it’s important for people in the court to have a lot of experience, both in life and professionally,” Wheat said.

For Wheat, that experience included term in the Montana State Senate as a Democrat from 2003 to 2005. That’s a line on Wheat’s resume that VanDyke focuses on in his campaign to oust him.

“Before he was appointed to the bench a few years ago, Mike Wheat was a partisan politician who repeatedly ran for political office,” VanDyke said.

Wheat is unapologetic about his political past. “Being on the Legislature is one of the experiences in my life that helps me make better decisions,” he said, “but it does not dictate those decisions.”

He added that he is not alone in having served in the Legislature, pointing to current justice and former Republican legislator Jim Rice.

His resume also includes 27 years of running a private law practice in Bozeman and time as a criminal prosecutor in Butte-Silver Bow County.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, Wheat faces a Montanan whose legal career led him around the country before returning to Montana to take the solicitor general post. After graduating from Montana State University with a degree in engineering, VanDyke attended Harvard Law School, where he wrote for the Harvard Law Review.

He worked at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms in Washington, D.C., and Dallas before taking a job as assistant solicitor general in Texas.

Although he does not have as much experience practicing law in Montana as Wheat, VanDyke said his work in the attorney general’s office has quickly shaped his understanding of Montana law.

He said he is driven to run by his concern over what he calls “results-oriented” judging.

“Results-oriented judging is when you pick the result you want and then you write an opinion to get there,” VanDyke said in a judicial forum in September. “We need judges who apply the law as it expresses the will of the people not reading their own will into the law.”

Although the Supreme Court seat is a nonpartisan one, a look at donations to the two lawyers shows a clear party preference for each candidate. VanDyke has attracted several out-of-state donors from Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as noted conservative activist Greg Gianforte, his wife and their family foundation. He supporters also include the Carbon County Republican Women’s political party committee and the Montana Gas and Oil political action committee.

Almost all of Wheat’s contributions are from in-state donors and the left side of the aisle, including the Montana AFL-CIO political action committee, and the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers political action committee, according to the records.

Between the rhetoric and the campaign donations, the nonpartisan race between Wheat and VanDyke has definitely taken on the feel of a partisan street fight, but how much voters know or care remains to be seen.

--By LAURA SCHEER
UM School of Journalism

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