House Rejects Partisan Support for Candidates in Judicial Races

Posted on February 22, 2011

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By JAYME FRASER

HELENA – The House narrowly killed a bill that would have allowed political parties to endorse judiciary candidates.

Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, sponsored House 557 because he said he felt the restriction unfairly limited the parties’ free-speech rights. Endorsements would improve dialogue about the judges’ stances, he added.

“The founders of this country, when they made the First Amendment, wanted unfettered speech on (elections for) all public offices,” O’Neil said.

Rep. Jean Price, D-Great Falls, worried the measure would give parties too strong a pull over the judges and end the independent nature of the judiciary.

“Often the judges are asked to weigh in on the results of an election and how could they do that with impartiality if they had a candidate endorse them or pay for ads in the newspaper for them?” Price asked.

Supporters argued the bill would improve dialogue about the candidates’ stances without compromising the system.

“How many of you or your neighbors know the difference between the two judges on the ballot?” asked Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby. “They know how many signs they saw but they don’t anything about these judges so they vote for the one with the best name recognition.”

But Rep. Mike Menahan, D-Helena, turned to the 1972 constitutional convention to show that Montanans wanted a judiciary even more independent than the current system, not less.

Menahan said the convention considered public financing of judicial candidates because they worried that forcing judges to ask for money would corrupt the judicial branch. That restriction failed to become part of the constitution by just two votes, he added.

O’Neil’s bill also failed by two votes.

Posted in: Daily Grind