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Don't mix politics with judicial process

by Daily Inter Lake
| March 14, 2021 12:00 AM

Two pieces of legislation are lingering in the halls of the state Capitol this legislative session that unnecessarily inject politics into Montana’s tried and tested judicial process. Neither should move forward.

Kalispell’s Sen. Keith Regier is sponsoring Senate Bill 140. The legislation would change the way judicial vacancies are filled, ultimately giving the Governor’s Office unchecked authority to make partisan appointments.

Currently, the Judicial Nomination Commission is responsible for reviewing applicants to empty judicial positions. The commission consists of four lay members from different areas of the state who are appointed by the governor; two attorneys appointed by the Supreme Court; and one district judge who is elected by the district judges.

This diverse panel of judicial experts evaluates the top prospects to fill openings, then sends those recommendations to the Governor’s Office where final appointments are made. The selected judges serve until the next general election.

The Judicial Nomination Commission was created during Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, with the intention of creating a buffer between the state’s judicial branch and the executive office. Similar systems have been adopted by 37 other U.S. states that see value in this separation of powers.

Proponents of Regier’s bill argue that the committee itself could be considered partisan — noting that the governor appoints four members to four-year terms — and that the responsibility to vet and select prospects should lie solely with the governor.

Yet we must ask Sen. Regier, a seven-term legislator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, why bring this up now? If eliminating the commission is such a good idea, why weren’t Republicans clamoring to change the law during the last 16 years when a Democrat was in the Governor’s Office?

It appears that the bill is nothing more than an attempt to make hay while the sun shines for the Republican Party. It’s a political play — not what’s best for Montana in the long term.

We’ve yet to hear a compelling argument for why the Nomination Commission should be cut out of the process, and side with former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, who argued in a recent Daily Inter Lake op-ed with Dorothy Bradley And Bob Brown, that the existing judicial selection process “provides the most assurance possible that those candidates most qualified by reason of judicial temperament, diligence and ethical conduct will be appointed by the governor to judicial office.”

Racicot knows a thing or two about the process — he was directly involved with the Nomination Commission in his own judicial appointments. We trust his judgment on this issue and concur with his op-ed’s conclusion that changing the law would “result in more power than a good governor would want or a bad one should have.”

Another ill-conceived bill making the rounds in Helena is House Bill 355. This legislation from Rep. Scot Kerns would revise laws to make state Supreme Court elections partisan and allow political parties to fund a judicial candidate’s campaign.

The state’s High Court is trusted with interpreting the state constitution to make thoughtful, independent, nonpartisan decisions. We can’t reduce the court to a political body that could be swayed by fistfuls of special-interest money from the highest bidder.

Thankfully this bill appears to have stalled in committee after failing a second reading last week. It should stay there.

We encourage our legislators on both sides of the aisle to think long and hard about these pieces of legislation before revising Montana law for the sake of short-term political gain. A separation of powers is worth preserving, and allowing politics to infiltrate our judicial process is at best a rotten idea, and at worst a free pass for corruption.