By Ron VandenBoom
Pat Cotter, nonpartisan candidate for Montana Supreme Court justice, said she has traveled Montana a lot since starting her campaign and she has noticed that perceptions about the high court have changed since several controversial decisions made by the court have made news.
"Either the court is doing a great job or the court has run amuck," she said, when asked to identify what those perceptions are. "Either the court is legislating or it is reversing too many cases that have come before it."
Cotter said these two divergent points of view have also become the primary issue between herself and her rival for a seat on the bench, Chris Tweeten.
Cotter said she takes the view that the current court has done a fine job, worked very hard, and reached some tough decisions.
"This is one of the hardest working courts we've ever had," she said. "This court has analyzed cases in greater depth than previous courts."
Previous courts, Cotter said, have let conflicting lines of authority coexist.
"This court looked at those and said, it's time to overrule one body or the other so everybody knows what the law is,'" she said.
The issue is called "legal precedent" and is important because in order for lawyers to correctly advise their clients on legal matters they must know what the law is and feel confident that what was a legal reality yesterday will still be legal reality tomorrow. Future legal decisions are based on past legal decisions.
The court has also been in the spotlight, Cotter said, because of certain high profile cases that came before it due to Montana's initiative process.
Constitutional Initiative 75 is perhaps the best known example of a case that came before the court because of the initiative process.
The initiative would have required a popular vote before any new taxes or fee increases were enacted. Voters passed the controversial initiative two years ago only to have the high court strike it down as unconstitutional.
Cotter said that although the initiative process has existed ever since Montana's new constitution was enacted in 1972, since CI-75 everybody knows it's there and is an avenue that can be utilized.
"And I agree that the more the process is utilized the more it's going to come before the court," she said.
This, in turn, will mean even more attention will be paid to the court's decisions, she said.
Cotter said she admits that while she deplores some of the more rabid criticism of the court, she also believes the court is accountable to the people.
"And if cases come up that are controversial the court can't shun those cases," she said. "So I don't think it's a bad thing for the court to be in the spotlight.
Cotter said that people ought to know what issues are coming before the court and how the court responds to those issues.
"I think it's always better to have a well educated public than a public that's in the dark," she said.
Cotter said she would like to see a more accessible court. She noted that she would like to see the court meet in the open with the public two or three times a year so the people could see what goes on.
"It's a lofty body," she said. "But it's also part of our government, so it ought to be accessible to the people."