HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Friday picked a former colleague to chair the panel that draws legislative districts, saying that an impartial judge with a background in mediation is a good pick to officiate the process.
The Supreme Court justices said in deliberations that former justice Jim Regnier is known as a good mediator and will be able to serve as an impartial fifth member of a panel made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. The court decided against picking any of the recommendations coming from either side.
Partisan members of the districting panel, unable to agree among themselves who should serve as chair, welcomed the choice.
Ten years ago, the Supreme Court picked a Democrat to chair the panel. Republicans believe that move allowed Democrats to gerrymander legislative districts in their favor — and have criticized the high court ever since.
Supreme Court justices said that they believe Regnier will be a fair chair of the panel.
Regnier, who served on the court from 1996 to 2004, currently works as a mediator and an adjunct professor at the University of Montana School of Law. He did not return a call seeking comment.
Republican panel member Linda Vaughey, former commissioner of political practices, said she was happy with the pick. Vaughey had advocated for an academic political scientist in pushing for impartiality as a top consideration.
“I am very pleased that the court has appointed a nonpartisan individual,” she said. “We look forward to getting to know him.”
Regnier has been at odds with Republican in the past.
Last year, Regnier — who had run for a judge as a nonpartisan — was included with a number of high profile Democrats who were endorsing then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Back in 2005, Regnier had a run-in with former GOP gubernatorial candidate and current UM law professor Rob Natelson after Natelson and many Republican state senators said Regnier could not impartially evaluate Natelson’s job performance.
Natelson said he thinks the Supreme Court made a mistake by picking someone who can be identified as a partisan. He said the court, following the contentious pick of 10 years ago, should have worked harder to find someone without any partisan baggage at all.
“You would think that the Montana Supreme Court would have appointed someone who, rightly or wrongly, is less identified in the public eye with one end of the political spectrum or the other,” said Natelson, a high-profile conservative. “It does strike me as a missed opportunity by the Montana Supreme Court.”
Justices, opening their Friday morning deliberations on the controversial topic to the public, quickly narrowed their choices down to judges like Regnier, current District Court Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena or former Worker’s Compensation Court Judge Mike McCarter.
“I think it might be particularly fitting that two political parties bringing a dispute to the judiciary get a judge for that dispute,” said Justice James Rice.
Justice William Leaphart, nominating Regnier, said the former justice was never known for extreme positions and is one of the most even-tempered people he has ever worked with.
Justice John Warner, first appointed to the court by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz, said he thought Regnier would be a good pick and had talked with his former colleague about taking the job. Warner said he doesn’t think Regnier is a partisan.
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