By SARAH COOKE/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Cindy Younkin believes the Montana Supreme Court needs a change in direction to rid itself of judicial activism and bring stability back to the bench.
Her opponent, incumbent Justice James Nelson, questions Younkin's pledge to be fair and nonpartisan, calling her the exact opposite, and accuses her of knowingly misleading voters.
Welcome to the race for Supreme Court seat No. 5, a contest that quickly became one of the more volatile this election year and pits one of the Legislature's most conservative Republicans against one of the court's more liberal justices.
Nelson was first appointed to the court in 1993 to fill a vacant seat. He ran successfully for the seat in 1996 and is now seeking his second eight-year term. Younkin, a three-term state lawmaker, is trying to unseat him.
An attorney in Bozeman for 15 years, the 45-year-old Younkin came out swinging when she entered the race last year and hasn't let up.
She has been highly critical of Nelson and the entire court, attacking justices for what she sees as a willingness to overturn precedent and make law rather than interpret it. Younkin said she feels the court may be overstepping its duties and setting public policy.
''I'd like to be on the court to remind all of the justices that we are there to interpret and apply the law and to resist the temptation to go beyond that,'' she said.
An Alliance, Neb., native and former Peace Corps volunteer, Younkin believes the court needs more predictability. Law enforcement officers particularly need more dependable and clear guidance to do their job, she said.
''When we don't have those things it affects everyone,'' she said.
While Younkin became the first challenger since 1976 to collect more votes than a Supreme Court incumbent in the primary, a new poll by Lee Newspapers of Montana showed Nelson leading 41 percent to 33 percent, with 26 percent undecided.
Nelson, 60, points to his 40-plus years of legal experience as the main reason he should be re-elected. The former Glacier County attorney also cites a long public service record and his dedication to fairness and preserving the rights of Montana citizens.
''I am the only candidate who's actually committed to the constitution and enforcing the law and protecting Montana's unique constitutional rights,'' Nelson said.
The Moscow, Idaho, native dismissed Younkin's activism allegation as ''a scare phrase'' and ''partisan sound bite,'' saying she has no credible evidence to back it up. If activism were really an issue, he said, one of the candidates running for the other open Supreme Court seat would have brought it up by now.
''I think a very important issue in this election, and future elections, is to keep politics out of court races,'' Nelson said. ''Keep it out as an impractical arbitrator of the law.''
Nelson, who ran unopposed in 1996, believes the court must address its heavy workload in coming years, while Younkin cites a need to speed up the judicial process. Both agree different funding mechanisms must also be considered.