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2024 Montana Primary elections
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

2024 Election breakdown: State Supreme Court races

The doors to the Montana Supreme Court chambers.
Shaylee Ragar

There are two open seats on Montana’s highest court up for election in 2024. MTPR’s Corin Cates-Carney and Shaylee Ragar have a rundown of the candidates and their motivations for running.

Race for Chief Justice

Corin Cates-Carney: Shaylee, what does it mean to be chief justice?

Shaylee Ragar: So, the chief justice rules on cases like any other Supreme Court justice, but they're also the administrative head of the court. And they chair the District Court Council, which allocates state funding to lower courts. Candidates for the job must run for election in nonpartisan races, and current Chief Justice Mike McGrath is retiring. So the seat is open this cycle.

Corin Cates-Carney: So who the voters have to choose from for the job?

Shaylee Ragar: Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson and former magistrate for the U.S. District Court in Montana, Jerry Lynch. And then there's a third candidate who hasn't campaigned as much nor raised any money. That's Doug Marshall, and he's an attorney who's practiced civil law in Bozeman for 40 years.

Corin Cates-Carney: Let's start with Swanson. Who is he? What's his background?

Shaylee Ragar: Sure. Swanson grew up on the Hi-Line, got degrees from Carroll College and the University of Montana Law School and is an Army National Guard veteran. Before running for county attorney, Swanson practice civil law for a Helena firm. He also spent a year at the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Attorney General Tim Fox in 2013.

Corin Cates-Carney: And why did Swanson want to be a prosecutor?

Shaylee Ragar: Swanson says he wanted to get into the courtroom more often and he says he got a sense of the job while working with prosecutors at the DOJ.

Cory Swanson: I really appreciated their commitment to helping victims and dealing with what I think are faster paced and complex cases.

Shaylee Ragar: Swanson has been doing that job since 2014.

Corin Cates-Carney: And why does he think he's the right person for the chief justice position?

Shaylee Ragar: Swanson says he's been frustrated with the High Court at times and he says he sees the court too often second guess district court judges, especially in criminal law.

Cory Swanson: That kind of got me to the point where saying, you know, it really would be good to have someone up on the court who has more recent trial experience in the district court, more recent experience dealing with these complex criminal law issues.

Corin Cates-Carney: Did Swanson tell you anything about his judicial approach?

Shaylee Ragar: Swanson says he learned to appreciate good legal analysis while working on civil cases. He says he'd used the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's textualist approach if elected, which calls for a tight focus on the text of the law.

Cory Swanson: I don't know that I always agree with him in terms of some of his things. I felt that he was, on criminal law cases. I felt that he was always a little more suspicious of the government. Being pro defendant, which is good and maybe it's a healthy place to be. But I don't think you should let that skew your reasoning.

Corin Cates-Carney: What else should we know about Swanson?

Shaylee Ragar: Swanson has received donations to his campaign from Republican Lieutenant Gov. Kristen Juras and Republican Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick. He's acknowledged his personal leanings toward conservatism, but he says politics have no place in court rulings.

Corin Cates-Carney: Let's move now to former Magistrate Lynch. What do we know about him?

Shaylee Ragar: Lynch is from Butte and attended what is now known as Butte Central Catholic High School. He got undergraduate and master's degrees in biology, chemistry and zoology from Carroll College and Montana State University.

Jerry Lynch: After a number of years in the laboratory, I decided I needed to get into a profession more people oriented.

Shaylee Ragar: After getting his law degree, he clerked for a federal judge. Lynch then worked in private practice for 10 years before he was appointed to the magistrate judgeship in Missoula, a position he retained for 14 years. Lynch was the longest serving federal magistrate in Montana when he retired in 2019.

Corin Cates-Carney: And, so, he was retired. What's brought him out of retirement for this race?

Shaylee Ragar: Lynch says he was motivated by the ongoing political conflict between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary. Lawmakers have alleged bias against conservative policy among justices. Lynch says the integrity of the courts is on the line.

Jerry Lynch: I'm running to protect the independence of the judiciary, which is essential to the protection of our constitutional rights.

Shaylee Ragar: And Lynch, unlike some other candidates for the Supreme Court, was pretty explicit in what that means to him. Protecting access to public education, the right to a clean and healthful environment and the right to privacy, which was found to protect abortion access in the Armstrong precedent. Lynch says this doesn't mean he's predeciding how he'll rule on the case, that he'll always have an impartial view of the facts before him. But he says precedent should stand.

Corin Cates-Carney: I think some would say that support for precedent protecting abortion access shows he aligns himself with some views of Democrats, even in a nonpartisan race. What does he have to say about that?

Shaylee Ragar: You can find contributions to his campaign from current and former Democratic officials. But Lynch insists that wouldn't influence his work as a justice.

Jerry Lynch: When I look at the judicial race, I do not want to align myself with any political party because my judicial philosophy is independence, independence, independence and impartiality.

Shaylee Ragar: Lynch says he's proud to have donations from attorneys who've appeared before him in court. On what he called both sides of the bar, plaintiffs and defense attorneys.

Corin Cates-Carney: Let's talk now about Doug Marshall. What do we know?

Shaylee Ragar: Marshall has been slow to kick off his campaign. He said in an interview that he actually almost pulled it out of the race, but decided he wanted to give voters a third option.

Doug Marshall: I feel like I have a, you know, rather than suing the chief justice or and making big storms on a litigation. I just run for office and hopefully some of my messages will either get through to, you know, the other candidates or voters or, you know, heaven forbid if I'm elected, then I can do some things my way.

Shaylee Ragar: Marshall says that even though it's a nonpartisan race, he feels the other two candidates are favorites of either party and he's not beholden to either.

Corin Cates-Carney: What does he think he can bring to the court?

Shaylee Ragar: Marshall says he offers a different perspective because he hasn't worked in government.

Doug Marshall: I guess that's the main difference. I'm kind of like a street lawyer than a lawyer of the common person and the mayor. A little more connected to the state.

Shaylee Ragar: Marshall also said he would use a textualist approach, basing rulings on the text of the Constitution and the original intent behind it.

Corin Cates-Carney: What's Marshall's campaign plan?

Shaylee Ragar: Marshall just launched his website and is talking to people about his candidacy, but he says he knows he's the least likely candidate to advance. He says he doesn't plan to do any fundraising or accept any contributions.

Corin Cates-Carney: And it's those top two candidates in the race that do advance the general election.

Race for Supreme Court Seat # 3

Corin Cates-Carney: Shaylee, turning to the Supreme Court race for the number three seat that's being vacated by Justice Dirk Sandefur, who's vying for it?

Shaylee Ragar: So we have two district court judges from opposite sides of the state campaigning for the opening. Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson and Seventh Judicial District Court Judge Katherine Bidegaray, who covers five counties in eastern Montana. A third candidate in the race is Jerry O'Neal, a former Republican state lawmaker who doesn't appear to qualify for the seat. But we'll get to that later.

Corin Cates-Carney: Sounds like the first two candidates you mentioned have similar experience. What do we know about them?

Shaylee Ragar: Let's start with Bidegaray. She grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana to bask parents who immigrated from France. She says they experienced life under military occupation during World War II and that shaped her upbringing.

Katherine Bidegaray: Paramount they instilled in us the importance of our form of government, democracy, because they had seen alternate forms that didn't treat its people so well.

Shaylee Ragar: After earning her law degree at the University of Montana, she worked for four years at the state office that regulates the insurance and securities industries before returning to eastern Montana. She took over running her family's farm at that time and also began working in private practice.

Corin Cates-Carney: And when did Bidegaray decide to pursue a judgeship?

Shaylee Ragar: She first won her district court seat in 2002. At the time, she said she was concerned about what she viewed as inconsistency in the sitting judges application of laws and precedents. And she wanted to change that.

Katherine Bidegaray: My background with the general practice of law really helped prepared me for it because very rarely does anything come before me that I haven't already kind of had some introduction to from my general practice of law.

Shaylee Ragar: She's been a district court judge now for more than 21 years.

Corin Cates-Carney: And what's her motivation in seeking a seat on the state's highest court?

Shaylee Ragar: She says it's the same thing that motivated her before. She wants to see consistency in the courtroom. But she separated that concern from what she called attacks on the judiciary's independence in recent years. Republican officials have accused the Montana Supreme Court of bias against conservative policies and lawmakers have been seeking more oversight of the court. Bidegaray says that seems like an effort to politicize a branch of government that should remain impartial.

Katherine Bidegaray: Our society depends on the rule of law. And the rule of law means that nobody is above the law.

Corin Cates-Carney: And Bidegaray is running a statewide campaign right now and fundraising for it. Does she see that as a conflict of interest when it comes to remaining impartial as a judge?

Shaylee Ragar: Bidegaray says she's committed to maintaining her independence as a judge and says she won't be attending any political functions this election cycle. It's worth noting she has received campaign contributions from some elected Democrats and at least one Republican currently running for office. She says she's proud to have contributions from attorneys of all backgrounds.

Corin Cates-Carney: Let's turn to one of the other candidates in the race, Judge Wilson. What can you tell us about his background?

Shaylee Ragar: Wilson lives in the Flathead, but his family is from the Malta area. His grandfather once served as a Phillips County justice of the peace. Wilson says he almost wasn't a lawyer. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in Soviet studies and considered working in the intelligence field, but decided that wasn't appealing.

Dan Wilson: It occurred to me that, you know, law school was a real, challenging and viable alternative and it would open up opportunities for me to go into business or law or any number of other careers.

Shaylee Ragar: He went to the University of Minnesota's law school and became a prosecutor for several Montana cities and counties. He then opened up his own practice.

Corin Cates-Carney: How did Wilson make his way to the bench?

Shaylee Ragar: He first ran for the Flathead County District Court judgeship in 2016. He says his 20 years in private practice had given him an appreciation for the job of a judge, which he described as dispassionately and objectively following the rule of law.

Dan Wilson: It's very eye-opening and also very sobering and humbling to see and experience the legal system from the perspective of your different clients, who may have very different, sort of, interests in the outcome of cases.

Corin Cates-Carney: And why Wilson want to be on the state Supreme Court?

Shaylee Ragar: He says he's dedicated to the judiciary and has the experience to serve at a higher level. He says his philosophy is to follow the rule of law without outside influence and to not legislate from the bench.

Corin Cates-Carney: What does Wilson make of the recent disputes between the Legislature and the court?

Shaylee Ragar: Wilson said it's not his place to criticize the High Court and that the ongoing conflict between the Legislature and judiciary is a natural result of having three co-equal branches of government. He says the court should maintain their tradition of remaining impartial, regardless of the current political environment.

Dan Wilson: Ultimately, it's up to the voters, I think, whether they agree, if that tradition is being maintained and if they decide that they want to see a change, then I have no doubt that we'll see a change.

Corin Cates-Carney: And what do you know about how he's funding his campaign?

Shaylee Ragar: Wilson has received campaign contributions from sitting Republicans, including Gov. Greg Gianforte. Wilson has attended both Republican and Democratic political events while campaigning. But Wilson says he's beholden to nothing outside of the rule of law.

Corin Cates-Carney: Earlier, you said that Jerry O'Neil is also a candidate in this race and that it doesn't appear he's qualified. Tell us more about that.

Shaylee Ragar: So, O'Neil does not have a law degree or a law license. He has appeared as counsel in Blackfeet Tribal Court, which has different requirements than the state to appear in court. The Montana Constitution requires that state Supreme Court justices have been licensed through the Montana Bar Association for at least five years before assuming the bench. O'Neil filed a suit against the state over that requirement, but dropped it, saying he didn't want a judge to take him off the ballot.

Jerry O'Neil: Well, I'm the only candidate running who wants to break the monopoly because there are all benefit and all the other candidates are benefiting from the monopoly, and it cuts down their competition in the race and it cuts down their competition and their occupation.

Shaylee Ragar: O'Neil will appear on the primary ballot. The Montana Secretary of State is required to presume all candidates who file for office are qualified and O'Neil signed an oath that he is qualified. It would take a third party challenge against O'Neil's candidacy to remove him from the ballot.

Corin Cates-Carney: Shaylee, thanks for your reporting.

Shaylee Ragar: No problem.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or shaylee.ragar@mso.umt.edu.  
Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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