By Ron VandenBoom
Pat Cotter, candidate for Associate Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, believes the court has done a good job despite the controversy that has surrounded it in recently years.
"I have taken the position that the court has not abused the power of reversing precedent," she told North Central Montana Pachyderms at a recent meeting.
She added that she believes the court has worked very hard and tackled some very tough issues.
"We may not always agree with the court, and I don't always agree with every decision the court has made," She told the Pachyderms. "But candidly, this court has taken upon itself the task of looking at cases in which over the years parallel but conflicting lines of authority have emerged on different issues."
She said that previous courts had either ignored the conflict in precedents or simply did not reference it in their decisions.
"This court has looked at those decisions and drawn a line so there would not be ambiguity," Cotter said.
A contributing factor, according to Cotter, was Montana's old constitution. A lot of Montana's precedent was based on decisions reached when the court was using the old constitution as the basis for its decisions.
Cotter told the crowd that when a precedent is "manifestly incorrect" it is incumbent on the court to reverse it.
She noted that if supreme courts never reversed precedent we would still have "separate but equal laws" and a lot of other things that came to us by way of historical precedent.
Cotter notes that one of her opponents has made an issue of the number of times the court has reversed precedent claiming that 99 cases have been overturned.
She told the Pachyderms that she has asked her opponent to provide her a list of what cases he is referring to, but she so far has not received the list.
Most of the controversy surrounding the court stems from a limited number of cases that have drawn a lot of public attention. One such a case is CI 75 a tax initiative passed in the 1998 election that would have required a popular vote on all tax increases and increases in government fees.
"One thing most people don't realize when they complain to me about the court's decision to strike down CI-75 is that there was a broad-based group of opponents to the initiative," she said, adding that labor groups and the Montana Chamber of Commerce were two of the groups that opposed it.
Cotter has practiced law for 23 years, 17 with her husband, Michael, in Great Falls.
"The difference between being a lawyer and being a judge is quite significant," she said, adding that the judge has to look at precedent and the law where the lawyer is an advocate for the client.
"I realize and appreciate the difference between being a lawyer and being a judge," she said.
Cotter said she is seeking the justice slot because she enjoys doing research and the kind of work the court requires and because she was encouraged to run by some of the current members of the court.