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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Proposed bills open the door to partisan judicial elections

Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena, MT.
Shaylee Ragar
Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building in Helena, MT.

Montana lawmakers are continuing to urge change to how the state’s judiciary operates. One bill to reduce the number of justices on the Montana Supreme Court failed Wednesday, while another to require judicial elections to become partisan has advanced.

Montana is one of 13 states that elects judges and justices in nonpartisan elections. Republican Sen. Daniel Emrich from Great Falls, and several other lawmakers who have signed onto his bill, want to change that.

“I think it’s going to overall create a more informed voter, and a more informed voter is, I think, the ultimate goal,” Emrich said.

Emrich’s Senate Bill 302 would require that candidates running in general elections for open benches and the Montana Supreme Court declare a party affiliation, or as nonpartisan. That would appear under their name on the ballot. The bill would also allow political parties to donate to judicial candidates. Primary elections would remain nonpartisan.

No one spoke in support of the bill in committee. Sean Slanger, representing the Montana Bar Association and Montana Defense Trial Lawyers Association, spoke in opposition, saying it’ll sow distrust in the judiciary.

“The vast majority of cases are not related to partisan issues. Citizens involved in these cases want and expect a fair process based on the law and based on the facts of the case,” he said.

The bill passed largely along party lines, with one Republican joining Democrats in voting against it. It’ll head to the Senate floor now for debate.

A similar policy in the House would allow judges and justices on the ballot to declare a party affiliation, but would not require it.

A proposal to reduce the number of state Supreme Court justices from seven to five died by just a couple of votes on the Senate floor Wednesday. Supporters argued it was an efficiency measure, but the Montana Judges Association argued it would severely hamper the amount of work the court can get done.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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