LR119 Reduces Influence of Special Interest Money
Over Montana’s Court
by Senator Joe Balyeat (R-Belgrade)
A recent Tribune editorial criticized my referendum to reform Montana’s Supreme Court – LR119. LR119 provides broader statewide Court representation – Each of the seven justices would be elected from seven different regions. In truth, LR119 is not so much an attempt to make the Court more conservative, as an attempt to make the Court more balanced and circumspect in its proceedings. LR119 will bring more diverse thinking to the court, rather than having a court dominated by power seeking, inside-the-beltway Capitol activists. Six of Montana’s seven current justices come from a 90 mile radius of Helena, and almost all were elected with enormous campaign spending by the Trial Lawyers’ PAC.
This imbalance has led to a runaway Court with no restraint – even knowledgeable liberals are concerned along with conservatives. Former MT ACLU Legislative Director and UM Law Professor Jeff Renz did a comprehensive nationwide study proving Montana’s Court was far and away the nation’s most activist Court – overturning its own prior case law at a rate more than twice that of the second most activist Court. His Montana Law Review study further proved there was no legitimate excuse for the Montana Court’s power grab, other than sheer lack of historical judicial restraint.
But it doesn’t take nationwide studies… just look at recent headlines. What other state Court in our lifetime has had its judicial head cut off twice in one month by the US Supreme Court? Montana’s Court, activist trial lawyer-dominated and lacking diverse discussion, is issuing politically-driven, dictatorial edicts with flaunting disregard for the rule of law and the Constitution. Follow the money – When special interest money (Trial Lawyers) dictates judge elections, it leads to a court that is special interest driven rather than based in consistent law. Under current statewide judge elections, average voters have little knowledge of either candidate’s track record. When votes are often an uneducated guess, slick ad campaigns funded by special interest money typically dictate statewide judge races.
How to fix it? LR119 seeks to bring justices closer to their Montana constituents in seven regional races spread across our big, diverse state. LR119 will result in more local judge candidates running in localized races. There will be more transparency in the local election process, and voters will have a greater understanding of the local candidates’ backgrounds, credentials, and views. Well-respected and experienced local judges would have a chance of winning, instead of the current statewide system where special interest money has bought a trial lawyer-dominated Court which presently doesn’t have a single former local District Judge on its entire roster.
Montana’s Constitution not only allows LR119, it invites the type of judge election reform which LR119 offers. The 1972 ConCon delegates voted down an amendment which would have mandated statewide at-large Supreme Court elections… the majority clearly opposed the idea. And voters amended Montana’s Constitution in 1992 precisely to allow instead that “Supreme Court justices shall be elected as provided by law”… which is exactly what LR119 does.
Yes, you’d only vote in one out of seven justice races. But your vote would be worth seven times as much…. Because it wouldn’t be diluted down in a vast, statewide400,000 -vote muddy sea of uninformed votes misguided by slick special interest ad campaigns.
LR119 seeks balanced and fair representation, and minimizes the influence of money in Supreme Court races to permit more diverse and qualified local candidates to seek Court election. LR119 brings needed geographic balance to the court, and voters will finally have a chance to know who they’re voting for in our Supreme Court elections.
If the Trial Lawyers aren’t successful in their present lawsuit to remove LR119 from the ballot and deny you your right to vote on LR119, I trust the voters to get it right when they vote in June…. For LR119.
Sen. Joe Balyeat (R-Belgrade) is a Great Falls native, GFHS National Merit Scholar, and the former Chairman of Montanans for Better Government. He was the prime sponsor of LR119 which passed the 2011 legislature.