GOP Legislators Call for Special Session to Make Supreme Court Races Partisan

Republicans have been at odds with the judiciary for several years now, but especially after winning the Governor’s Office in 2021

By Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan
People cast their votes at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Nov. 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A dozen GOP lawmakers are calling for a special session to consider bills allowing Supreme Court judge candidates to list their party affiliation on the ballot.

In their letter to the Secretary of State requesting the special session, the Republicans said with an election to fill two vacant seats on the state Supreme Court this year, the current non-partisan designation for judicial candidates deprives voters of the “most important information about the candidates running for these seats: their party affiliation.”

“As a result, Montana voters may unknowingly cast their ballots for judicial candidates who do not share the voters’ worldview,” the letter read.

Judicial races in Montana are currently nonpartisan.

The Secretary of State has five days to send out a poll to legislators on conducting a special session, with a simple majority needed to call lawmakers back to Helena. The legislature has convened in a special session 33 times in Montana’s history, six times since the turn of the century.

For several years now Republican legislators in Montana have been decrying the unfairness of the state’s judicial branch for striking down laws the court finds unconstitutional. This call for a special session, which was not signed by party leadership, isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to require Supreme Court candidates to declare a party affiliation; a bill aiming to do just that failed to get out of its first committee last legislative session.

Republicans have been at odds with the judiciary for several years now, but especially after winning the Governor’s Office in 2021.

The GOP established a commission in 2022 to examine judicial transparency after Republicans pushed for more court oversight when the court struck down several GOP bills that were signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, the first Republican governor in 16 years. Republicans more recently established a similar commission claiming the courts had overstepped the separation of powers and violated the state Constitution.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, proposed a bill in the 2023 legislative session to allow judicial candidates to list their party affiliation on the ballot, which Hertz said was about transparency.

“Do we really want to stick our head in the sand and believe the nonpartisan races are truly without partisanship?” he asked in a committee hearing.

The bill was opposed by at least one current justice who said it’s hard enough to be impartial without partisanship, as well as the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, Montana Judges Association and Montana State Bar Association, among other Montana groups.

The only support for the bill came from a member of the Lewis and Clark Republican Central Committee which said it would be helpful for voters, and would also allow the party to give money to candidates.

The bill died in committee with a unanimous vote.

Another bill to change the judicial election process, which would have sent a constitutional amendment to voters to put the legislature in charge of appointing justices, also died unanimously in committee.

In the race to fill a Supreme Court seat in 2022, Republicans including Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Attorney General Austin Knudsen endorsed President of the Public Service Commission James Brown in the race, which analysts said injected partisan politics into the nonpartisan race. Incumbent Ingrid Gustafson retained her seat.

The Montana Freedom Caucus submitted a call for a special session at the end of 2023 over residential property taxes, but it failed. Nearly half of the legislators who signed this current effort are also Freedom Caucus members.

Legislators proposed to convene on Monday, June 24.

Legislators who signed the call for a special session included:

Rep. Lee Deming, R-Laurel
Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell
Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman
Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R- Missoula
Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade
Sen. Greg Hinkle (Replacement for Sen. Bob Brown), R-Thompson Falls
Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls
Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel
Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Billings
Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay
Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R- Circle
Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.