Supreme Injustice

By Beacon Staff

Here in Montana, we directly elect our Supreme Court justices, in a “non-partisan” race. Once we do, we’re stuck with them for eight years. Do you know for whom you’ll vote?

Justice Pat Cotter is running unopposed for re-election, while Mike McGrath and Ron Waterman are vying for Chief Justice. Who the heck are these people?

McGrath, of course, has been Montana’s attorney general for eight years after 18 years as Lewis and Clark county attorney. He’s always been a Democrat, and I’m sure if he’s elected to the Supreme Court, he’ll interpret law like one.

But if you aren’t an attorney, or a news junkie, you’ve probably never heard of Ron Waterman.

Is he a choice, not an echo?

Well, it’s hard to say. Project Vote Smart’s Web site lists only his name and office sought. All the background information is blank. So … off to Google. First thing, “our” Ron Waterman isn’t the pro wrestler from World Wresting Entertainment, but rather a lawyer in Helena for 38 years.

While he lists “toxic torts” as one of several practice areas, he’s also represented Canyon Resources in its suit against the state’s ban on heap leach mining.

Waterman’s pet issue seems to be equal protection under the law, regardless of income, saying that “each person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty and that all persons deserve competent lawyers.” Along that line, working on behalf of the ACLU, Waterman helped spring wrongly-convicted Jimmy Ray Bromgard from jail after 15 years.

But Waterman also participated in the ACLU’s 2006 litigation to stop administration of Montana’s death penalty by lethal injection, specifically the August 2006 execution of triple-strangler David Dawson, who had dropped all his appeals after rotting on death row for almost 20 years.

Oddly, Waterman does not mention his anti-death-penalty position on his Web site, a position he apparently shares with McGrath, who in turn chose not to defend Montana’s child-rapist death penalty when Louisiana’s similar law went before the U.S. Supreme Court and was shot down.

While Waterman claims he’s strictly “nonpartisan” in contrast to McGrath, his only Federal Elections Commission record lists a September 2006 contribution to the Montana Democratic Party for $375. According the FEC, McGrath has contributed $1,750, all to Democrats. Just in case you’re wondering, all of Pat Cotter’s donations before she joined the court were to – Democrats.

Ya hear the echo?

Waterman further announced he’s not taking PAC money and further asked “special interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” not to throw money into the chief justice race.

Not-so-funny thing is, the U.S. Chamber has never tossed money at the Supreme Court race in the past … that’s been the de-facto bailiwick of Montana’s two “lawyer parties,” the Montana Trial Lawyers Association (MTLA) and the more-conservative Montana Bar Association.

Because our Commission of Political Practices is so far behind the curve, I had to scrounge up the conservative Hardliner blog for information on the “party” role played by MTLA and other PACs in the Supreme Court election – in 2004.

In 2004, MTLA’s PAC made “independent expenditures” of over $308,000 supporting liberal Jim Nelson over conservative Cindy Younkin in that justice race; $141,000 of that came from only nine trial lawyers, including Jim Hunt, who lost the 2008 Democrat primary for Congress to populist gadfly Jim Driscoll. The PAC formed to support Younkin only raised about $40,000.

It seems that no real choices are being presented for Supreme Court this year. All the candidates clearly sit on one side of the ideological bench.

Worse, it appears that the “nonpartisan” nature of this supposed “vote of the people,” idealistically enshrined in our “most progressive” state Constitution, has instead created a “democracy” that depends utterly on which exclusive lawyer faction raises the most money.

And what’s the unintended consequence? Our judicial branch has become the exclusive playground of those with a vested interest in picking who hears the cases presented. This year at least, I find it impossible to mark my ballot for, um, “Justice.”