Longtime Justice Jim Rice faces attorney Bill D'Alton for seat on Montana Supreme Court
Two seats on the Montana Supreme Court are up for election next month. The court’s longest-serving member, Jim Rice, is running for a third 8 year term against Billings trial lawyer Bill D’Alton for a seat on the state’s high court.
Rice has served on the state Supreme Court since 2001, when he was appointed by then-Gov. Judy Martz. Before that, he had a private law practice, and served three terms in the Montana House of Representatives, from 1989 to 1994; he was the House majority whip in 1993.
“I believe I have that reputation for listening to all sides, being very careful about the law's application and exercising the powers of the court,” Rice told YPR of his experience.
Rice’s opponent in the race, Billings attorney Bill D’Alton, has practiced civil and criminal law in Montana for nearly 30years. He decided to join the race after seeing Rice was running unopposed.
“I believe there should be competition in elections,” D’Alton said. “I think that's good and healthy for the people of Montana to have a choice.”
And it’s a choice that could have a big impact on the future of the state — Republican lawmakers have already asked the court to reconsider what’s known as the Armstrong precedent giving constitutional protection to abortion.
Rice was part of a unanimous Supreme Court decision to uphold a district court’s ruling to block laws restricting abortion from going into effect while a case between Planned Parenthood of Montana and the state was ongoing.
Among other significant rulings this past year, Rice joined justices in a unanimous decision that the state Board of Regents has the authority to regulate firearms on school campuses. And he dissented when the court upheld an injunction on state laws ending same-day voter registration and barring some forms of ID at the polls.
“It is apparent that the fundamental right to vote guarantees voting access, but not necessarily a particular form of voting access or elections free of state regulation,” Rice wrote.
D’Alton says he’s running to address his concerns about big government infringing on the rights of Montanans. And he says he disagrees with how the current Supreme Court views the role of government.
“I worry about when you, a citizen, sues the government, you have all these exceptions of why you can't sue the government, from absolute immunity to qualified immunity to public duty doctrine," he said. "It seems to me the Montana Supreme Court bends over backward to put the rights, I call it the rights of the government, of which there are none, in front of the rights of people.”
Rice, meanwhile, has been outspoken about his concerns with power struggles between Montana’s three branches of government. He made headlines in 2021 for filing, and winning, a suit against the state Legislature after lawmakers attempted to subpoena Supreme Court Justice’s personal communications during the 2021 session.
“I felt that they had overstepped a constitutional line. And that's why I brought that lawsuit," Rice said. "I think that judgment serves as precedent and as an example that can be used in the future."
But D’Alton says Rice’s lawsuit negatively affected the court’s reputation.
“That whole subpoena issue that could have all been avoided,” D’Alton said. “It was a political nightmare mess, it doesn't help the credibility of the Montana Supreme Court doesn't help the credibility of either side.”
When asked what they see as the biggest challenges the court faces, both Rice and D’Alton point to political polarization at the national level — and in Montana. Rice says there has been a national trend of efforts to undermine government institutions
“I've campaigned for office multiple times, and I never had to address this issue. It was always just assumed by the citizens that our institutions would be supported and they would function as designed,” Rice said. “I think it seems like we're not getting the message through very well about how our democracy works, as seen by the efforts to resist it.”
The race between Rice and D’Alton hasn’t attracted the same national attention as the other Supreme Court seat on the ballot: The race between Justice Ingrid Gustafson and James Brown has seen an influx of out-of-state financial campaign contributions.
As of Oct. 17, Rice has received more than $56,000 in campaign contributions, nearly all of which have come from within Montana. D’Alton, however, says he has refused to take any campaign funding or endorsements.
Rice served in the House as a Republican and has the endorsement of the state GOP in the race against D’Alton, but Montana is one of 17 states with nonpartisan judicial elections. Both candidates credit this for helping judges remain unbiased.
“It's important that every judge or justice be impartial, respectful to everyone," D'Alton said. "And consider the arguments from both sides, and then render a decision based on the Montana constitution. That is fair, and the people can understand.”
But nonpartisan elections mean that voters can’t rely on a partisan label to know a candidate’s stance on issues, and Rice says it can take more work for voters to get to know their candidates.
“When we campaign, I realize people are somewhat frustrated, because we can't take positions, we don't make promises. And that's because judges are committed to the law, our oath and allegiance is to the law, not to a set of political priorities," he said.
The Nov. 8 election will essentially be a repeat of June’s primary, when only Rice and D’Alton were on the ballot – and Rice received three times more votes than D’Alton.
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