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Out Of State Money In Montana Supreme Court Races

Last month seven former Montana Supreme Court justices had an opinion piece published in the Missoulian. The title of the piece was Will Montana Judges Be For Sale?

The former justices described out of state money pouring into state judicial elections. They presented facts that can't be argued with – reports to state officials of campaign spending, from the websites of several of the groups spending the money and in the words of these groups' spokespeople in news interviews. Money – millions of dollars were being targeted on state supreme court races in states like Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

One of these groups, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) announced it had amassed $24 million dollars just in the first half of this year. It spent money this August trying to take out Tennessee's sitting justices. Also active in Tennessee was the Koch brothers Americans for Prosperity group.

The former justices warned that, just as in other states, money from out of state groups would be coming here to influence Montana's judicial races. That is now a fact in Montana. The Washington DC based RSLC is currently spending money on judicial TV ads and direct mail in Montana – and, based on their TV buys, likely have already exceeded the amount they spent in Tennessee. Americans for Prosperity has also jumped into Montana's race.

Financial disclosure forms from the RSLC aren't due until Friday. So we don't yet know who exactly has been providing the money, or how much. But thanks to we do know the RSLC's supporters in 2014. Their out of state corporate benefactors include tobacco companies Reynolds and Altria, Koch Industries, WalMart, CitiGroup and Exxon Mobil among others.

Montana Growth Network spent money in the 2012 Supreme Court election. It did not report where their money came from and only partially reported their spending. Was that money from Montana, Texas, Washington DC or even China? We don't know because these truly “dark money' groups thumb their noses at our campaign laws requiring disclosure.

At this time there is at least one other out of state group that is also trying to influence our court election. We don't know who they are because they don't identify themselves, a violation of our campaign laws. When you click “CONTACT” on their website, you get a map identifying their location as Scottsdale, Arizona.

One of the points the former justices made was: “Montanans have the right to know where the money is coming from, who is spending it, and what that contributor’s agenda is. …. Montanans deserve fair, impartial, independent and non-partisan judges and justices elected by Montana voters – not political hacks, bought and paid for by out of state dark money.”

The former justices have been criticized because some received election support from trial lawyers. Now, there is nothing wrong with naming supporters of candidates. That's exactly what the justices said – we should know where the money is coming from, who is spending it and what is their agenda. The only reason the justices could be criticized is because Montana trial lawyers comply with Montana law and report every penny – how much we receive, who it came from, and who spent it and what they spent it on.

Here are the facts about trial lawyers spending in Supreme Court elections that anyone can check out in our filings with Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices. In 1998 we spent nothing. In 2000 we spent $161,000 on two races – one candidate we supported won, one lost.

In 2002 we spent $96,000 to support the re-election of one justice. His opponent was an inexperienced attorney trying to turn the nonpartisan race into a partisan race. This attorney was later sent to federal prison for cocaine charges – I guess we were right in our assessment of who the better candidate was.

In 2004 we spent $326,000 to help re-elect a justice who had originally been appointed to the Court by a Republican governor. As in 2002, his opponent was a relatively inexperienced attorney trying to turn the nonpartisan race into a partisan race.

In 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 trial lawyers spent nothing, zero, on independent expenditures in Supreme Court races.

And, what's our agenda? Well, it's pretty simple – for us, the best justice for all Montanans is someone with extensive Montana legal experience, with a proven record of being a fair and impartial justice. That's our agenda – an experienced, fair and impartial court to hear the cases of the Montana families and small businesses that we are proud to represent.

What have the judges that we supported done? They have decided cases both for and against our members' clients, but we got what we sought - an experienced, fair and impartial court to hear those cases.

Will Montanans know who is spending money on Montana judicial races? Past experience here and in other states indicates that the answer is no, not fully, we will be in the dark when it comes to much of the spending. You will, however, know about every penny raised and spent by the trial lawyers. This election we support Justice Wheat, the RSLC supports VanDyke.

This is my last commentary – thanks for listening all these years, it's truly been a pleasure.

This is Al Smith for the Montana Trial Lawyers.

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