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Partisan politics are shaping Montana's Supreme Court races

Graphic: 2022 Montana elections

Supreme Court campaigns are non-partisan, but this year’s races are taking place amid an unusually charged political atmosphere.

This year, voters will decide on two of the seven seats on Montana's court of last resort.

The stakes for the elections are set in a polarized political moment. During the last year, the court has faced a high-profile dispute with the Legislature's Republican majority over records and alleged judicial bias. Justices are considering a request to overturn a two-decade precedent protecting abortion access under Montana’s constitutional right to privacy. Recently passed state laws seeking to change how people vote could also come before the court.

The Supreme Court Justice #2 race features incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson, District Court Judge Michael McMahon and Public Service Commissioner Jim Brown.

Many of Montana’s most prominent Republicans are lining up behind Brown.

Jim Brown - Justice #2

Brown, who was unavailable for an interview before the deadline for this report, has received endorsements from Gov. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, and state Attorney General Austin Knudsen, all Republicans. The Montana Republican Party, which has criticized the current court as being too liberal, has also endorsed Brown’s candidacy. Montana’s State Auditor Troy Downing, an elected Republican, has donated to Brown’s campaign.

In 2020, Brown was elected as a Republican to the Public Service Commission, Montana’s utility oversight board. He has also owned a private law practice and lobbied for the Montana Wool Growers Association.

On his campaign website, Brown says that as a member of the Montana Supreme Court he would “work to bring consistency to the Court, to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, to avoid legislating from the bench, and to be an impartial judge.”

Ingrid Gustafson - Justice #2

Incumbent Ingrid Gustafson says the political endorsements Brown has received are inappropriate and the state needs independent justices.

“I’m not part of a political party; I do not have any endorsements by political parties,” Gustafson says. “I think Montanans really deserve fair and impartial judges that aren’t beholden to partisan politics.”

Gustafson practiced law for 16 years before former Republican Gov. Judy Martz appointed her to the Yellowstone County District Court bench in 2004. That work included state and federal criminal defense, personal injury, and domestic relations cases. In 2011, Gustafson started the 13th Judicial District’s felony drug court as well as a pilot court in the area of child dependency. Former Democratic Governor Steve Bullock appointed her to serve on the Montana Supreme Court in 2017.

“I’m running for reelection because I believe I bring a lot of experience to the job. I’ve handled thousands and thousands and thousands of cases over my judicial career. I think I have a lot to contribute with my experience to the court,” Gustafson says.

Michael McMahon - Justice #2

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon describes himself as a “constructionist” who decides cases based on strict application of the law.

“We tell juries all the time, you have to apply the law that the court instructs, even if you disagree with it. I apply the law. It’s a very conservative and common sense approach and that is my philosophy. That’s what the public should expect.”

McMahon’s been a Montana District Court judge since 2017.

His 26-year general and civil defense private law practice began in Bismarck, North Dakota. In 1996, he returned to Montana. McMahon says his general practice work included everything from trusts and wills to representing lawyers and doctors sued either in civil court or brought before licensing commissions. He also represented Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana.

McMahon describes himself as a conservative who occasionally finds himself at odds with Montana Republicans. Late last year he blocked a law that would have allowed people to carry guns on public college campuses. That ruling earned him a “judicial activist” label from some conservative critics.

“I got frustrated from a standpoint that if you made a decision that was adverse to one party or another that you were an activist, or you were ‘right on’ or you were the conservative judge that they expected,” McMahon says. “I think it’s wrong to label judges when they make decisions based upon controlling precedent.”

The top two vote-getters in that three-way race advance to November’s general election.

Montana’s Supreme Court Justice #1 primary race features a longtime incumbent and a first-time candidate. With only two candidates in the primary, both incumbent Jim Rice and challenger Bill D’Alton are likely to advance to the general election ballot.

Jim Rice - Justice #1

Jim Rice, a former Republican state lawmaker, says judges and judicial candidates should set aside partisan politics.

“I believe the support that I've drawn from both sides of the aisle is indicative of the trust that people have placed in me and their confidence that I'm able to do that,” he says.

Rice says his judicial philosophy focuses on the distinct roles of the three branches of government and the separation of powers between them.

“And then a court who is acting in that way responsibly, is in a position and has public support to keep the other branches of government within their designed roles, which is ultimately the final call of the court.”

Bill D'Alton - Justice #1

Billings trial attorney Bill D’Alton describes himself as a “Main Street lawyer” who’s practiced law for nearly 30 years. D’Alton says he’s represented a wide variety of clients in state and federal courts.

While he’s never run for public office before, D’Alton tells MTPR the simmering dispute between Montana’s legislative and judicial branches has him worried on many levels.

“I think that could have been handled differently. I think that whole controversy didn’t do much for either side. I think Montanans are losing confidence and that’s a dangerous thing when you start losing confidence in the judicial system.”

D’Alton says special interest money flowing into state elections threatens the integrity of the judiciary. He says structural changes are needed to improve Montana’s Judicial Standards Commission, a board that oversees judicial ethical conduct.

“It does need to be improved because of the money now flowing into these, what should be, bipartisan elections. I think the Judicial Standards Commission probably needs to be redone.”

If elected, D’Alton vows to serve only one eight-year term.

Montana’s primary is June 7.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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