Montana’s tradition of having nonpartisan elections for judicial races is under threat because of a federal appeals court ruling.
The attorney general's office and the Commission on Political Practices hopes to go to the United States Supreme Court to get the appeals court decision overturned,.
We wish them well. A lot is at stake.
The framers of the Montana Constitution believed that judges should be elected without partisan labels. They believed that partisan elections for judgeships would lessen the public’s support for judicial decisions. And, in effect, partisan elections would prompt judges to take partisan positions in making decisions, especially those that involved political matters.
So Montana law prohibits candidates from running on partisan tickets and bans parties from supporting and financing candidates.
The first step in decimating this policy came when dark money was introduced into judicial elections.
In one recent election, conservative dark money was used to attack, we think unfairly, two candidates for Montana’s Supreme Court.
Don’t fear, we’re sure that by the next contested election for the high court, liberal dark money groups will join in the fracas.
Now the Sanders County Republican Party wants to be able to endorse candidates for nonpartisan judicial races. If the appeals court ruling stands, we’re sure Democrats will be more than willing to endorse their own candidates.
If that is the case, candidates will appear on the ballot with no party affiliations, but both candidates will be aligned with a political party and political money.
Technically, Montana law will be followed. In fact, the intent of the law will be trashed.
Voters in Havre last year decided to conduct nonpartisan elections for city offices. The intent was to keep political parties out of municipal elections.
But if the ruling is extended to municipal elections, and it almost certainly will be, political parties will still be able to organize campaigns and finance elections. The backroom folks will know who is a Democrat and who is a Republican. But people looking at their ballots will not be allowed to know.