HELENA — On Tuesday, the Montana House voted down a bill that would have had judges run in partisan elections.
House Bill 342, sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, failed in a 44-56 vote on the House floor, with 23 Republicans joining all 33 Democrats in opposition.
Currently, Montana Supreme Court justices and district court judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections. All candidates run in a single primary without party labels, and the top two move on to the general election.
HB 342 would have made judicial elections partisan, like other state elections. It would also have allowed political parties to make contributions to judicial candidates.
Supporters of the bill said – despite the ideal of impartiality – judges are involved in politics, make donations to candidates and bring their political background into how they interpret the law. They argued voters should be able to know that information.
“These candidates are partisan,” said Regier. “Our judicial candidates do have their own mindset, they have their own thoughts, they do have their own worldview. I believe we should let the voters know that.”
But opponents said judges’ work shouldn’t depend on their party label.
Rep. David Bedey, a Republican from Hamilton, said he understood people had concerns about perceived political bias in the judiciary, but he didn’t believe HB 342 was the best way to address it.
“This is a concern held by many Montanans and probably most of us as well,” he said. “Unfortunately, the solution proposed here is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire in order to fight it.”
During the debate, Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings, proposed an amendment that would have removed district court judges from the bill, keeping them nonpartisan while adding party labels for Supreme Court races. He argued, at the local level, the public was still close enough to make a decision based on candidates’ qualifications.
“There still can be the sense of the community in terms of what that lawyer’s credentials are, what that lawyer’s reputation is,” said Mercer. “I definitely agree with the sponsor that that’s a different question when we’re talking about the statewide races, where it is much more difficult to divine the background and qualifications.”
Mercer’s amendment failed 38-62.
The House has already advanced another bill that would overhaul judicial elections. House Bill 325, sponsored by Republican Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, would put a referendum before voters, proposing that Supreme Court justices be elected from districts, instead of statewide.