By Ron VandenBoom
Chris Tweeten, nonpartisan candidate for associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court, told a recent meeting of the North Montana Pachyderm Club that he brings two qualities to high court his opponent doesn't.
Tweeten, who was born and raised in Havre, is running against Great Falls attorney, Pat Cotter.
Tweeten said that during the last 20 years, in his position with the Montana Attorney General's Office, he has argued a wide variety of criminal cases from misdemeanor to death penalty homicide cases.
Perhaps a third of the cases argued before the Supreme Court, he said, were criminal cases.
Cotter, he said, has very little experience arguing cases under Montana's criminal code.
"I've been suggesting to voters that it's probably not a good idea to elect someone to the Supreme Court that needs on the job training in that very vital area that's so important to public safety in Montana," Tweeten said.
The second item Tweeten said he feels he can bring to the court is balance.
Tweeten said he has also, during the course of his duties, had to deal with a wide variety of civil cases, personal injury cases, employment cases, Workmen's Compensation cases, and constitutional law cases.
"I think this breadth of experience is one of the things that separates me from my opponent," he said, adding that most of Cotter's experience in private practice has been in filing damage lawsuits against individuals and businesses.
There are already three members of the court that come from a similar background, he said.
"I think it's vital that the Montana Supreme Court reflect a balance of different backgrounds and different perspectives," he said. "And I'll bring that kind of background to the court."
He said he feels it can be really healthy for the court to be pulled in different directions by a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences.
Tweeten said he also feels working as part of state government has given him a unique insight into the needs of state agencies and he also recognizes the court hears a number of cases that stem from state agencies.
Cotter and Tweeten also differ on their views of how the court has been run over the last five years.
Tweeten, in earlier interviews, has been critical of a court that he said has reversed too many decisions and needs to be "more respectful of its precedence."
He said at that time that issues that have been decided ought to remain decided unless there are compelling reasons to change them.
Cotter disagrees with Tweeten and in an interview done at about the same time she said the court has done a fine job, worked very hard, and reached some tough decisions.
Cotter said previous courts had let conflicting lines of authority coexist and this court looked at those and said, "it's time to overrule one body or the other so everybody knows what the law is."
Tweeten agrees that there can be compelling reasons to reverse decisions and conflicting lines of authority can be a compelling reason, but in 1996 alone, the court reversed itself 25 times, he said.
"... I don't think those cases come close to explaining the almost 100 cases in which the court has overruled itself in the last 10 years," he said.
"I think there's a serious problem," he said, regarding the issue.
Most polls, Tweeten told the pachyderms, show him dead even with a large block (about 60 percent) of undecided voters. The most recent poll by the Great Falls Tribune, shows Tweeten at 17 percent and Cotter at 27 percent.
"That's good news for me," he said. "Because most polls after the primary showed me 21 points down."