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Helena lawyer, judge eyeing open Montana Supreme Court seat in 2020

Posted at 4:57 PM, Jun 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-28 19:42:44-04

HELENA — A Helena lawyer and former assistant attorney general is running for Montana’s open Supreme Court seat in 2020, and a state district judge in Helena is considering the race as well.

Mike Black, a lawyer in private practice who also worked as an assistant attorney general under attorneys general Steve Bullock and Tim Fox, filed paperwork as a candidate three weeks ago, shortly after Justice Laurie McKinnon announced she won’t run for re-election next year.

Black told MTN News Friday he’d been considering the race even before McKinnon decided not to run.

He said his broad experience in the law makes him a good fit for the high court.

“I have immense respect for the Montana Supreme Court and our system of justice and the rule of law,” he said. “The citizens of Montana should expect and deserve a Supreme Court justice without enough experience to grasp the law … and apply it in a way that respects the Montana constitution, protects people’s rights and respects their dignity.”

District Judge Mike McMahon, who’s been on the bench in District 1 since 2017, told MTN News that he’s looking at the race and will decide by next week.

Before he was elected to his judgeship in 2016, McMahon had been an attorney in private practice in Helena.

McKinnon announced June 3 that she won’t run for a second term on the seven-member court.

McKinnon’s husband recently took a job in North Carolina, and she told MTN News that she wasn’t looking forward to another partisan-tinged race. Conservatives and business groups supported McKinnon in her 2012 contest against Edmund Sheehy Jr., who was backed by Democrats and liberal-leaning groups.

While McKinnon generally is considered part of the conservative wing of the court, she’s sometimes been a swing vote on some closely decided cases.

When asked about the political makeup of the court, Black said he doesn’t consider the court’s members to be decidedly political one way or the other — and that he’d like to keep it that way.

“I firmly believe that everybody on the court is fair and open-minded, and that it’s their objective to apply the law in a fair and consistent way,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to be diligent in preventing partisan politics from creeping into the Montana Supreme Court or any other court, for that matter, for it really has no place there.”

Judges run as nonpartisan candidates in Montana. Black said he has made political contributions in the past to candidates from both major parties.

Black, 57, is a native of Havre, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Montana and has a law degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

He said he’s worked for big and medium-sized law firms and as a solo practitioner, and works currently for a law firm based in Bozeman.

Black was an assistant attorney general in Montana from 2011-2015, often working on cases defending the constitutionality of Montana statutes, including significant election and campaign-finance laws.

He also has been litigation director for the Montana Legal Services Association, which represents low-income Montanans in civil legal cases and issues.

“I think I have a broad understanding of how the legal system operates in Montana and how it affects people,” he said.