HELENA — A district judge may have broken Montana's code of judicial conduct when he wrote a letter soliciting donations for another judge who is running for a seat on the state Supreme Court.
District Judge Laurie McKinnon of Choteau confirmed Monday that Judge Nels Swandal of Livingston wrote the undated letter in support of her candidacy, and that the letter was distributed by her campaign.
McKinnon said she accepted responsibility for the letter but declined to speak to its contents, other than to say she does not believe it jeopardizes Swandal's impartiality or ability to be fair.
"I think the rules are to be addressed in a specific forum, and I'm not going to address them in any other manner," McKinnon said.
That forum is the Judicial Standards Commission, which reviews complaints against judges. Susan Parshall, head of the commission, acknowledged seeing a copy of the letter but said she cannot disclose whether a complaint has been filed against Swandal.
The Montana Code of Judicial Conduct includes a section that limits a judge's ability to engage in political or campaign activity to maintain public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. Judges can endorse candidates for judicial office, but they are barred from getting involved in the money race.
"Judges are prohibited from soliciting or collecting money on (judicial candidates') behalf," the code reads.
Swandal wrote in the letter that he supports his friend McKinnon and that she shares his "commonsense voice and support of individual, privacy and property rights." He referenced his own failed 2010 run for a state Supreme Court seat, saying money was one of the most difficult parts of the campaign and that was why he was helping McKinnon raise as much money as possible before the April 5 reporting deadline.
"The maximum contribution allowed is $620 per person. I would be grateful if you could generously give what you can," Swandal wrote.
Swandal did not return calls for comment Monday and Tuesday.
McKinnon is running against Great Falls attorney Elizabeth Best and public defender Ed Sheehy for the state Supreme Court seat that is now occupied by retiring Justice James Nelson.
Swandal's letter targeted Best, calling her the choice of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and environmental and conservation groups. "Lawyers with agendas do not make good judges," Swandal's letter read.
Best campaign manager Adam Pimley said the campaign had no comment on the letter and it does not plan to file a complaint against Swandal.
If a complaint is filed, the commission will determine whether an investigation is warranted. If the investigation finds the complaint has merit, the commission can initiate disciplinary actions ranging from a private admonition sent to the judge to removing the judge from office — a decision that must be approved by the state Supreme Court.
McKinnon said she is pleased to have Swandal's support and believes "special-interest" groups seeking to derail her campaign are circulating the letter. She declined to elaborate on who those groups are.