HELENA – A legislative panel heard a proposal Tuesday to make judiciary elections in Montana partisan, meaning candidates for district judgeships and the state Supreme Court would be affiliated with political parties, nominated and elected like a candidate in any other race.
Montana’s judicial elections are now nonpartisan, and candidates cannot identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.
Rep. Michael More presented House Bill 521 to the House State Administration Committee, saying partisan elections would create greater transparency and let voters understand judicial candidates’ biases.
Opponents of the measure say partisan politics have no place in an independent judiciary.
“It would take away, or perhaps be contrary to, the independence and impartiality of the district court judges and Supreme Court justices,” said Ed Bartlett, a lobbyist for the Montana Judges Association.
More, a Republican from Gallatin Gateway, dismissed the idea that justice is blind and that judges can be nonpartisan.
“I think there’s an issue of wistful naivete on the part of the public that’s how they would like things to be,” More told the committee.
Judicial candidates would still be able to run as an independent or for a third party under More’s bill. But because of the scarcity of successful independent or third-party candidates, the practical effect would be that judicial candidates would have no choice but to affiliate themselves with one of the mainstream parties, said Niki Zupanic of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Judicial candidates will now be pressured into conforming to a political agenda,” Zupanic said. “The idea of judicial integrity on various issues will be undermined. It will be completely eroded, I think.”
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill, which calls for putting the question to voters in a referendum next year.
Fourteen states already hold some form of partisan judicial elections, either for all their judicial posts or just certain courts, according to the American Judicature Society.
The issue came into the spotlight in Montana last fall when District Judge Nels Swandal touted his conservative credentials in a losing campaign for a state Supreme Court seat.
Swandal said during the campaign that people should know where he comes from and what he stands for, but that his conservatism would not affect his performance on the bench.
The election’s winner, Helena attorney Beth Baker, had campaigned on her nonpartisan background and lamented that partisan politics had entered the race.
Also testifying in favor of More’s bill was state Sen. Joe Balyeat, whose Senate Bill 268 would ask voters to eliminate statewide elections for the seven state Supreme Court justices and instead create districts from which each justice would be elected.
The Bozeman Republican said he believes there is no transparency in the judicial election process now, and that campaign donations from outside the state have had undue influence.
“The average judge in small-town Montana has absolutely no chance in the process,” Balyeat told the committee.
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