State Supreme Court Races Draw Early Candidates

Neither Chief Justice Mike McGrath nor Justice Dirk Sandefur is seeking re-election

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
Montana Supreme Court building in Helena. Beacon file photo

The first signs of competition in the two races for Montana’s Supreme Court slated for next year are beginning to show.

In June, Montana Free Press reported that neither Chief Justice Mike McGrath nor Justice Dirk Sandefur would seek re-election at the end of their current terms. Candidates — and rumors of candidates — began to surface. 

Most recently, 7th Judicial District Court Judge Katherine Bidegaray filed to run for Sandefur’s seat, setting up a contest between Bidegaray, 11th Judicial District Court Judge Dan Wilson, and possibly others. Wilson has already raised almost $13,000, a sum that includes a self-loan of $10,000. Bidegaray has yet to file campaign finance reports. 

The race for the chief justice seat so far features only one candidate: former federal magistrate court judge Jerry Lynch. But there’s already evidence of an anti-Lynch campaign backed by some familiar GOP-aligned interests, with mailers attributed to a group called Montanans for Fair Judiciary that paint Lynch as a “liberal trial lawyer.” That group is associated with Jake Eaton, a prominent Republican political consultant and former campaign strategist for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Lynch has raised almost $60,000 so far this cycle. 

Montanans for Fair Judiciary reported a $4,000 contribution in June from the Montana Judicial Accountability Initiative, a separate group that lists Eaton as treasurer. MFJ authorized the expenditure on the mailers around the same time.

The Montana Judicial Accountability Initiative has received sizable contributions over the last year from Women Speak Out PAC, an anti-abortion group; Big Sky Opportunity PAC, the leadership PAC affiliated with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines; and a number of individual donors, according to state campaign finance records.   

In interviews with MTN News, all three candidates have dropped breadcrumbs hinting at what will likely be major themes in the campaign this year: provisions in the Montana Constitution related to privacy and the environment; a still smoldering separation-of-powers row between the court system and the Legislature; and the growing politicization of nominally nonpartisan judicial races.

“I feel lucky to live in a state that has adopted protections in its Constitution for very important rights,” Bidegaray told MTN News. 

“Common sense not only means that we should look at the law and interpret it without regard to what a special interest group might prefer that we find for a meaning or even what our personal preferences might be — but merely to say what is there, and not to seek to put what is not there,” Wilson said.

And from Lynch, responding to the mailers from Montanans for Fair Judiciary: 

“I think that my motivation in protecting and defending the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and protecting what I think is the most thoughtful state Constitution in the United States, gives me the motivation that I’m prepared to do what it takes.” 

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.