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Answers to your questions — big or small — about anything under the Big Sky.

At election time, how should we judge judges?

A gavel and scale of justice.

Austin Amestoy: Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is The Big Why.

Today, our statehouse reporter Shaylee Ragar is here to about candidates for public office.

Shaylee Ragar: We’re in our election era, Austin.

Austin: Yes, where the hours feel like days and the days feel like weeks!

Shaylee: I know people are feeling inundated with politics right now, but we’re hoping to help distill down all the noise into some digestible information people can use at the polls.

Austin: Great! And who brought us this question?

Shaylee: Helena resident Bob Filipovich asked for help deciding how to fill out his ballot.

Bob Filipovich: My question is — in judicial elections, what are the best ways voters can evaluate judicial candidates?

Shaylee: Filipovich says he posed this question to a candidate for a district court bench once before.

Bob: And he said, that’s a good question, and then he stopped. Because it’s a difficult question.

Austin: Shaylee, why do you think that’s a difficult question?

Shaylee: State Supreme Court races can seem pretty niche. The offices and elections are nonpartisan, so voters can’t really rely on party affiliation to make decisions. And it’s unlikely the average person will ever need to interact with the high court.

The justices’ work can be really high-level and far-reaching, disconnected from everyday life in Montana. But it also impacts all of us in ways we might not even know or think about.

Austin: What do you mean by that?

Shaylee: Well, the Montana Supreme Court often makes the news when justices hand down landmark rulings, like on constitutional issues.

But the state’s high court is the only court in Montana that deals with appeals on lower court decisions. So justices see all kinds of appeals related to criminal law, family law, local government stuff — the list goes on.

Austin: So you’re saying voters may have more of a stake in Supreme Court elections than some may realize.

Shaylee: Totally! And political experts, parties and fundraisers are really tuned into this. We’ve been seeing record fundraising for Supreme Court candidates in recent years, parties seem to have their favorite candidates and outside special interest groups spend a lot of money to have influence in these races. So it only seems fair voters do, too.

Austin: Alright, let's dive into Bob’s question: how should people evaluate Montana’s Supreme Court candidates. and where can they find that information?

Shaylee: Yes, let’s start with the second part of that question because that’s kind of my whole gig, right? Filipovich submitted this question a few months ago, and since then, me and all my fellow news reporters at MTPR have been working to gather information about all of the candidates running for statewide office in Montana, including for the Montana Supreme Court. We’ve now aired and posted that reporting to our website.

To answer Bob’s question, I think it’s really useful to explain to listeners how we went about that.

So I went to the person who taught me how to report on elections, and that is Professor Lee Banville, director of the University of Montana journalism program.

Banville says to learn about candidates for any office, the most basic place to start is with issues — is this candidate for or against a sales tax, is this candidate for or against Medicaid expansion, does this candidate share my belief that the sky is blue — we all do this right?

Austin: If you really want to make it simple — you could pick one issue and ask that one question of all candidates

Shaylee: Right, and some people do that. But Banville suggests going deeper.

Banville: The danger there is that then you’re just a single issue voter — you vote because of this one thing. What if they’re a bad human being? What if they lie? What if they are pro-second amendment but also pro-abortion rights, and what if you feel really strongly one way about one of them and really strongly one way about the other?”

Austin: That’s the beauty of our political system, right? We’re not all robots with black and white beliefs – we’re complex people with complicated opinions and experiences that inform our beliefs.

Shaylee: Absolutely. So as journalists, we try to get candidates to take clear stances on issues, while also revealing their motivations, hopes and character.

For example, for our race profiles online, we asked everybody they think they’re qualified for public office, what they hope to accomplish in office and how they would tackle different issues.

Banville: You start to think about, like, what kind of leader are they? Are they good at communicating, with the public? Do they want to communicate with the public? These are all questions that I think, voters can kind of look at and say, oh, well, you know, I might agree with this issue, but I really don't like the way that they're handling critics, or I really don't like the fact that they won't hold a town hall, or I really do like the fact that they really get things done and they're really productive, in their personal life or their professional life. And I want that in, in, in the legislature, too.

Austin: Ok, Banville mentions the Legislature there, but to get back to Filipovich’s question, the Montana Supreme Court is a different animal. Judges and candidates for the courts notoriously avoid answering where they stand on certain issues. So how should voters evaluate state supreme court candidates?

Shaylee: Right on the nose, Austin, yeah these races are tricky. Legal scholars point to this becoming common practice after the 1993 U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She told the court she could give “no hints, no forecasts, [and] no previews” of how she might rule on questions that might come before the court, if she were to assume the bench. Here’s a clip of that archived by C-SPAN

Ginsburg: Because I am and hope to continue to be a judge, it would be wrong for me to say or to preview in this legislative chamber how I would cast my vote on questions the Supreme Court may be called upon to decide.

Austin: Shaylee, can you translate that into layman’s terms for us?

Shaylee: Yes, unlike candidates for political office, judges and justices are adamant that their personal opinions cannot influence how they rule on a case. They get unique facts for each case, and then determine how laws should apply. However, there’s plenty of subjectivity in how to do that. And some argue that judges and justices aren’t always checking their own biases at the door.

At MTPR we ask judges about their judicial philosophies, when they think it’s prudent to recuse themselves from a case and how they view legal precedent.

Filipovich, our question asker, had an interesting theory on how to think about different candidates’ answers.

The partisans think in terms of winning and losing. The executive, I think, thinks in terms of consequences. But I think the judiciary thinks in terms of true and false.

Austin: MTPR reporters have been hard at work asking questions of candidates and recording their answers – where can people find that information, Shaylee?

Please, please go to our website, We have written Q&As and race profiles with the information you need to make an informed decision at the polls for all candidates, not just the Supreme Court.

And I would also really encourage people to read about candidates from other trusted sources. Read two or three stories on the same issue or candidate, and compare. Find a journalist you trust and reach out with questions, we’re more than happy to answer them.

And if you still need a little help, Banville says it never hurts to do your own digging, finding candidates’ websites, social media or looking up who’s donating to their campaigns.

Banville: Go look at who gave them money. That's what I tell the students in our covering election class is like, okay, who gave money to this candidate? And you'll see a list of people, and then you'll be like, I have no idea who this person is. But then you'll start to say, oh, there's the attorney general or, oh, there's the former governor or oh, there's, you know, the Trial Lawyers Association.

Shaylee: For state candidates, that campaign finance information lives on the Commissioner of Political Practices website. There’s a lot of stuff on that site, but all fundraising data is in the Campaign Electronic Reporting System. We’ll toss a link for that on this episode post online.

Austin: Shaylee, thanks for your reporting.

Shaylee: Happy to share it, Austin!

Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. Submit your questions below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving a review. Let's see what we can discover together!

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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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