As he prepared to step down from the Montana Supreme Court last year, former Justice Terry Trieweiler offered some candid words to the Independent about the nature of Montana Supreme Court elections, saying that races are non-partisan, but not non-political.
“I think it’s disingenuous when people campaign for the court under the prextext that they have no value system which would affect their decision-making,” Trieweiler said.
The inherent catch-22 of Montana Supreme Court elections—voters desire knowledge of where each candidate stands politically, but candidates often won’t provide that background due to impartiality concerns—played itself out in spades at capacity-crowd debate of current Montana Supreme Court candidates at UM law school’s Castles Center on Wed., April 7.
The candidates on the Nov. 4 slate are Jim Nelson, a current justice appointed by former Gov. Marc Racicot with a reputation for protecting Montana’s heightened “right to privacy”; Cindy Younkin, who served six years as a hard-line Republican in the state Legislature; John Warner, a current justice appointed last year by Gov. Judy Martz after Trieweiler’s retirement, and a self-described conservative; state solicitor with the Montana Department of Justice Brian Morris, who represented the state in lawsuits arguing that the state inadequately funds both the public school system and the public defender system; and Ed McLean, a Missoula district court judge.
The five candidates agreed with each other on nearly every question presented by the debate’s moderators, each acutely aware that any hint of “agenda” could be used to impugn their impartiality.
Nonetheless, some differences emerged.
McLean broke off from the group when discussing pro se (self-representing) parties. While other candidates suggested that these parties, who may have lesser legal skills than professionals, be “given some slack,” McLean said that to do so was essentially “taking sides.” A
lso, while all decried judicial activism, Morris, the youngest candidate, did note that “there are cases where law and public policy intersect and determine what quality of life we’ll have in Montana.”