HELENA, Mont. (CN) — The race for a Montana Supreme Court seat appears to be a repeat of 2014, when donations from outside organizations flooded into the state to oppose a sitting judge.
Voters on Tuesday will decide three of the seven Montana Supreme Court seats, but only one is an actual race. Justice Patricia O'Brien Cotter is retiring after this year, leaving a vacancy that two Montanans — Dirk Sandefur and Kristen Juras — hope to fill. Incumbents are running unopposed for the other two seats.
Given the strikingly different backgrounds of Sandefur and Juras, voters should be able to make a clear choice. But a recent statewide poll of 1,000 voters revealed the two candidates each have about 30 percent of the vote, and the remaining respondents are undecided. One explanation is Montana's judicial elections are nonpartisan, so citizens can't just vote by party.
After serving as a police officer in the 1980s, Sandefur received his law degree in 1993 from the University of Montana and jumped directly into a county attorney's office. In 2002, he was elected as a county district judge and has been reelected twice to the six-year post.
Juras received her law degree from the University of Georgia in 1977. Since then, she has run a private practice in Montana specializing in property, business and tax law and teaches occasionally as an adjunct professor at the University of Montana Law School.
It's Juras' lack of courtroom experience that the Montana Trial Lawyers Association have called into question, especially when compared to Sandefur's 14 years on the bench. The association's membership includes about 400 attorneys, the majority of whom represent clients going up against insurance companies.
Not every Supreme Court candidate has had experience as a judge, but they've at least had extensive courtroom experience and argued cases before the high court, according to association spokesman Al Smith.
"Juras has now come out saying she's in the courtroom all the time, but we couldn't find any records. Seems her only experience is teaching at the law school. That's all well and good, but we don't think that makes for a good justice," Smith said. "A lot of (Supreme Court) decisions are about what happened at trial, and she doesn't have the experience to know what happens at the district level."
Juras counters that, saying she would bring a more diverse knowledge to the court because other justices don't have much background in agricultural or water-rights law.
"My time at the law school taught me how to break down the law," Juras told Home Ground Radio reporter Brian Kahn.
In the three-way primary where the top two moved on, Juras garnered 44 percent of the vote, followed by Sandefur with 34 percent.
Since then, fundraising has ratcheted up to record levels, accompanied by battles over campaign finance violations.
Since the end of September, donors have given Juras almost $36,000 and Sandefur more than $43,000, according to Montana Commissioner of Political Practices reports. That puts the total raised by both candidates at more than $714,000.
Meanwhile, political action committees have spent almost double that.
The Montanans for Liberty and Justice PAC, supported by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, raised almost $600,000 and spent more than $250,000 at the end of October on polling and media opposing Juras. One television spot features former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer shooting a shotgun at a TV broadcasting an anti-Sandefur ad.
The ads against Sandefur are sponsored by the Judicial Fairness Initiative, an out-of-state organization under the Republican State Leadership Committee that seeks to elect conservative judges across the nation. The group's ads have attacked Sandefur for supposedly giving light sentences to men charged with possession of child pornography, but don't acknowledge that many sentences were part of plea deals.
The Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee formed in 2002 to help Republicans win in down-ballot legislative races. The Judicial Fairness Initiative was added in 2014 to focus on judicial races and its largest contributors appear to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tobacco giants Reynolds American and Altria Group, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Wal-Mart Stores and a number of pharmaceutical companies.
The Montana Trial Lawyers Association recently discovered that the Judicial Fairness Initiative had not registered as a PAC in Montana and was not disclosing its campaign finances as required by state law. The Montana Political Practices Commissioner ended up in a three-day showdown with the Republican State Leadership Committee, which claimed the initiative is an out-of-state organization and didn't have to register.
But the commissioner held his ground, and the initiative registered by a Nov. 3 deadline and filed its spending report revealing a $268,000 budget.
The Republican State Leadership Committee also inserted itself into the 2014 Montana Supreme Court race. Challenger Lawrence VanDyke, backed by the committee and Americans for Prosperity, claimed that incumbent Michael Wheat was too liberal for Montana. VanDyke's donors and the Judicial Fairness Initiative spent almost $800,000 trying to unseat the incumbent. But Wheat, backed by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, prevailed with 59 percent of the vote.
This year, some of Sandefur's donors are conservationists and sportsmen who worry that Montana's stream-access law could be gutted if Juras joins the state Supreme Court. Montana has a thriving recreational economy thanks to one of the strongest stream-access laws in the nation. Fishermen and boaters can use bridges to access and float any recognized stream and to walk the banks as long as they remain below the high-water mark.
However, wealthy individuals who have bought ranches in Montana tried to block access to streams flowing through their property — most notably media mogul James Cox Kennedy, who sued to keep fishermen from using public bridges to access the Ruby River along his property. But the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the fishermen, who proved historic use of the bridges before Kennedy bought the property.
Juras has said that she wouldn't limit stream access but didn't agree with the court's ruling. She said property up to the high-water mark should be an easement and property owners should be compensated.
Other stream-access cases are working their way through the courts. Two justices on the Montana Supreme Court already tend to vote against stream access, and Juras would make a third — putting the court that much closer to reversing a law that has defined the state, Smith said.
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