More Supreme Injustice

By Beacon Staff

We have three Supreme Court candidates this primary. Can you name one, or explain what sort of judge they’ll be? Tick, tick, tick, time’s up!

Don’t feel bad … you’re not supposed to know what’s going on.

Our judiciary, from Justice of the Peace all the way up, is all elected. Supreme Court justices (one Chief, six Associate Justices) serve eight-year terms, staggered so no more than two seats are elected at once.

We have two Supreme Court “races” this year. The contested race is between Helena attorney Beth (Elizabeth S.) Baker and Wilsall District Judge Nels Swandal.

The other (uncontested) race concerns Mike Wheat, a Bozeman lawyer and former state senator, appointed to fill a retirement vacancy by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. If fewer than 50 percent of voters choose to retain Wheat on the court, his seat will be vacated, and a replacement will have to be nominated and appointed.

Primaries are held in order to pick the top two candidates in each race so they can duke it out in the November general election. But, with three in two races … we don’t need to vote, but will.

Stupid? Yeah, but there’s more.

We pick Montana’s judiciary through local and statewide “nonpartisan” elections, which would be great if nonpartisan elections (for anything) guaranteed evenhanded competence – but they don’t.

First, expecting judges to be non-political is unrealistic. America’s legislatures are stuffed full of lawyers … many of whom became interested in writing laws after having another law “interpreted” by a judge.

Instead, the field is left to those with axes to grind. Organizations with an “interest” in the courts, or court policy, i.e., the bar association, trial lawyers, death-penalty/ACLU/etcetera special-interest groups – get to play their inside baseball.

The rest of us, the voters at large, are just along for what is a deeply partisan, purely political ride. We’re stuck with names on a ballot, without even a letter behind the name to help us wildly guess if this person is conservative, moderate or liberal – never mind competent. That, folks, is ridiculous. But the insiders are cool with it.

I’m not. I prefer to make an informed choice. So I did some digging, and found some clues.

When determining a person’s political leanings and intensity, I have found that the most useful clue is almost always money. So, I went to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) site, and to www.followthemoney.org to find whether Baker, Swandal or Wheat have made political contributions. Yep.

Baker, who is listed variously as Beth or Elizabeth, donated $250 to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. At the state level she has made about $1,004 in donations since 2000. Except for $175 in two “nonpartisan” donations for Supreme Court races, all her money has gone to Democrats, including $378 to Steve Bullock, our current attorney general.

Swandal is not listed in federal records, but at the state level, he has given $1,120 since 2000, all to Republicans or the party, including about $100 to attorney general candidate Tim Fox, who lost to Bullock. So there’s one difference, I guess.

How about Mike Wheat? His federal level contributions total $1,530, all to Democratic candidates or parties, plus another $1,000 to Montana Conservation Voters’ federal PAC. At the state level, of $2,475 he donated, 83 percent went to Democrats, (most, $1,775, to his own successful state Senate campaign).

In all this scrounging around, however, Google gifted me a critical document buried deep in the Montana Supreme Court site. It’s a 15-page application Mike Wheat submitted when he applied for the court appointment, information the Judicial Nomination Commission felt was required in order to make an informed recommendation to Schweitzer.

It’s precisely the sort of thing voters need to make an informed choice, too. I now find myself wishing Baker and Swandal had also completed that form.

Come to think of it, they still can, and post it on their campaign sites sometime before November. So could Wheat, for that matter. If they don’t … that’ll be all Montana voters really need to know.