Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson responded harshly last week to an impartiality and public openness pledge sent by state Republicans. While Republicans say they were only attempting to prevent electoral gerrymandering, Nelson called the pledge a partisan effort to influence the court.
“I’m not going to sign any pledge to do anything,” says Nelson, who first made his feelings public with a written response circulated to state media. “I took an oath when I became a justice to support, protect and defend the constitution of the United States and Montana. That’s the only pledge I take.”
But Erik Iverson, the state Republican Party chairman who sent Nelson the request and an accompanying letter, wonders if that’s enough.
“To hide behind the black robe and keep the public out of the process—Montanans deserve better,” he says.
Iverson’s letter and request comes in advance of the state’s plan to adjust the boundaries of Montana’s legislative districts in 2009. Montana’s 1972 Constitution gives responsibility for redistricting to the five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission: two Democrats and two Republicans who are left to decide their fifth member. If they can’t decide on the final member, then the court makes the appointment.
“The past three times the court has been asked to pick a member, they’ve nominated Democrats,” says Iverson, which is why he asked justices to pledge impartiality and non-partisanship, and to publicly conduct any deliberations over an appointment.
As of Sept. 26, the GOP had only received refusal letters from Nelson and Attorney General Mike McGrath, a candidate for Chief Justice in November’s election.
“This is common stuff,” says Jeffrey Greene, professor of political science at the University of Montana. “Almost every time there’s a redistricting, one party ends up benefiting more than the other… The Republicans are reminding people that the cards may be stacked against them.”