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Will Montana judges be for sale?

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Citizens United empowered organizations with opaque, feel-good names to pour significant amounts of dark money into judicial elections. This is happening in our sister states, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t happen in Montana’s upcoming elections for judges and justices.

Two recent non-partisan studies detail what is happening. "Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions" is a scholarly study, released in June 2013, sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Authored by Emory University law professor Joanna Shepherd, this nationwide analysis of state judicial elections provides critical data on the effect of campaign expenditures on judicial behavior from 2010-2012.

The second, "Koch Brothers and D.C. Conservatives Spending Big on Nonpartisan State Supreme Court Races," was published in August by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and educational institute. The author, Billy Corriher, a lawyer holding political science and business degrees, discusses in-depth the millions that are being dumped into judicial races in some of our sister states to elect and unseat state supreme court justices.

Highlights from the studies detail a frightening and appalling picture. In a nutshell, business groups and opaquely named conservative organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C., are dumping millions of dollars into the state judicial elections of several of our sister states. The object of the exercise is to elect justices who will vote in favor of business interests and to unseat justices who are considered “out of touch” with the agenda and political ideology of these organizations and groups. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is the first national party organization which is focusing on electing judges. It was the biggest spender in North Carolina’s May Supreme Court primary elections. Assisted by the State Government Leadership Foundation (SGLF) and the Koch brothers affiliate, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), RSLC attempted to unseat three of Tennessee’s justices in an August election. Dark money dominated the Arkansas and Alabama supreme court elections. Koch Industries is one of the biggest donors to the RSLC. These various groups and organizations are inundating non-partisan judicial elections with staggering amounts of cash to accomplish their goals and to politicize otherwise non-partisan judicial races. And, unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that the amount of expenditures and contributions to judicial races correlates directly with how a benefiting justice votes on cases.

Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics report that outside campaign cash will soon dwarf money that individual judicial candidates raise and spend.

PACs, the above organizations and groups, and super-wealthy individuals will be spending money to influence Montana’s upcoming judicial elections. Montanans have the right to know where the money is coming from, who is spending it, and what that contributor’s agenda is.

No Montanan wants to litigate in a court where the fix is in because the judge or justice is beholden to those who spent him or her onto the bench. Montana’s judiciary must not be forced onto the auction block.

Montanans deserve fair, impartial, independent and non-partisan judges and justices elected by Montana voters—not political hacks, bought and paid for by out of state dark money. Our civil justice system is at stake.

This piece was written by retired Justice James C. Nelson and signed by retired justices Terry Trieweiler, Jim Regnier, Bill Leaphart, Bill Hunt and John (Skeff) Sheehy.


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