After 77 Years, Montana Parties Can Back Judges

     (CN) – Montana unconstitutionally infringes free-speech rights by making it a crime for a political party to endorse judicial candidates, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     The federal appeals court in Seattle blocked the 77-year-old law late Monday in time for political parties to make endorsements in the upcoming general election.
     The Sanders County Republican Central Committee (SCRCC) sued Montana’s attorney general and commissioner of political practice in May, challenging the state’s so-called Party Censorship Statute, violation of which is publishable by six months in jail.
     The committee claimed that the law tramples the First Amendment and prevents it from warning voters about judicial activism.
     “Given the increasing intrusions by left-leaning state judges into areas of policy traditionally reserved to the Legislature, SCRCC desires to endorse judicial candidates for the primary and general elections in 2012,” the group’s complaint states.
     U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell refused to enjoin the law, but a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed after hearing oral arguments last month.
     “The District Court found, and the parties do not here dispute, that Montana has a compelling interest in maintaining a fair and independent judiciary,” according to the majority opinion authored by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who sat on the panel by designation from the Southern District of New York. “Where Montana and the district court err, however, is in supposing that preventing political parties from endorsing judicial candidates is a necessary prerequisite to maintaining a fair and independent judiciary.”
     Montana could always appoint its judges through a bipartisan panel if it “were concerned that party endorsements might undermine elected judges’ independence,” Rakoff added.
     Writing in dissent, Judge Mary Schroeder called the ruling a “big step backwards for the state of Montana.”
     “The majority ignores the practical effects of its decision on that interest when it takes a formulaic approach to First Amendment doctrine,” she wrote. “This is the first opinion to hold that even though a state has chosen a non-partisan judicial selection process, political parties have a right to endorse candidates. This means parties can work to secure judges’ commitments to the parties’ agendas in contravention of the non-partisan goal the state has chosen for its selection process.”

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