SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA A proposal supporters said is meant to keep the state’s judicial branch honest was panned Wednesday by district judges and attorneys as a costly and unnecessary restriction on campaign contributions. The measure by Rep. Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy, would require all state, district and municipal judges to remove themselves from a case when an involved attorney donated to that judge’s most recent election campaign. The proposal does not apply to past elections, and both parties can agree to waive the restriction if they wish. “The people of Montana deserve to know their judges aren’t on the take,” Mendenhall told the House Judiciary Committee. “And I’m not saying they are, but this bill deals with the appearance of impropriety.” Committee members took no immediate action on the measure. Supporters said government ethics have become a major issue among state and federal lawmakers in recent years, and the judicial branch should be subject to the same scrutiny. “We would like to ensure that our judiciary is independent from any special interests in the state,” said Jon Bennion, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce. Judges argued they rely on contributions from attorneys to fund their campaigns because such races typically generate little public interest. The proposed restrictions, they said, would delay the judicial process by forcing most judges to find substitutes to hear their cases to avoid conflict. “All judges would be shuffling cases back and forth, and would have to call in judges to handle local cases,” said District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena. Other opponents questioned the need for such a law, saying Montana has limits on such campaign contributions, unlike some other states, and adding the small size of the state’s judicial community would bring any wrongdoing quickly to the surface. “Can you think of anybody who would risk their professional career for a $130 or $250 contribution? We don’t have that ethics problem here,” said Al Smith with the Montana Trial Lawyers Association. Chris Manos, executive director of the State Bar of Montana, said he feared the bill would keep people from running for judicial posts, while others warned it would permit “judge shopping.” “All (the attorneys) would have to do is contribute $35 to a judge’s campaign and they would be ensured that judge would not serve on any of their cases,” McCarter said. Mendenhall said judges have an easy way out of any possible dilemmas don’t accept any campaign contributions from attorneys that could cause problems. “It’s important that our citizens know our judicial branch is clearly impartial and that they will get a fair trial,” he said. The bill could be amended to remove the waiver provision and include a grandfather clause for sitting judges. The bill is House Bill 229.