By Ron VandenBoom
Jeff Renz, candidate for justice of the Montana Supreme Court, said during a campaign swing through Havre Wednesday that he expects to bring some expertise to the court that now it doesn't have.
Renz, a law professor at the University of Montana since 1993, is a specialist in constitutional law, criminal law, and aspects of family law, has also spent 13 years in private practice in Billings.
"I think my work in constitutional and civil rights law is something the court doesn't have right now," Renz said.
Renz said that generally he likes what the current court has been doing, but admits that there are a lot of people in Montana who are uncomfortable with the court and how it is going about its business. He expressed the concern that lawyers don't know what to tell their clients because the court seems to have reversed precedent on so many cases.
He said the rate of reversal on cases heard before the current court has been five to 10 times the rate of other courts in other states where, like Montana, there are no appellate courts.
"Some of which have higher case loads than Montana," he said. "It's a high rate."
Asked whether precedent has been thrown out the window by the current court, Renz said, "precedent is still in the window, but it's got a lot less respect than it used to."
"I hope to bring precedent back," he added.
Renz said that in terms of the result, he likes the results the current court has reached, but in terms of the process, "it is throwing the (Montana Bar Association) into disarray and it's throwing a lot of businesses into disarray."
"I think the court can get where it's going and still keep things predictable and understandable," he said.
Renz explained that once a court writes a decision that interprets a statute, that becomes part of the body of law and it's easy for others to go back and second guess what they've done.
"There's a difference between second-guessing and hindsight," he said. "We can exorcise hindsight and say it may have been a good idea at the time but it's not working and overrule it," he said. "But to go back and say the court wasn't adding two and two together as well as it could have is second-guessing."
Understanding of the difference between these two principles is something he has gained through his experience as a teacher. He noted that teaching has broadened his view and made him "a lot more reflective."
"I try and think about how things might play out years from now," he said. "That's exactly what a jurist needs to do on the court. It may be a case between two parties, but you always got to have an eye on how it will play out down the line."
It's a lesson Renz tries to instill in his students and a strength he believes he can bring to the bench.
Renz has argued many cases before the Montana Supreme Court and he is listed in Who's Who in American Law. He has established national precedents in special education, voting rights, and prohibiting drug testing of workers.
He is also the author of law review and journal articles.