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Jim Brown, head of PSC, running for state Supreme Court

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James Brown

Jim Brown, the president of the Montana Public Service Commission, has entered the race for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court. 

Brown's campaign is against Justice Ingrid Gustafson's bid for re-election and challenger Mike McMahon, a district court judge in Lewis and Clark County.

"The reason I'm running for this position is because folks from Montana reached out to me in the last several weeks after seeing who had filed for the Supreme Court and asked me to consider running," Brown said Tuesday. That included, Brown said, his clients, colleagues, friends, district court judges and trade associations.

Brown, a 51-year-old from Dillon, was elected to the PSC as a Republican in 2020. He is a private attorney and former lobbyist for the Montana Wool Growers Association.

The concerns about his opponents that sparked his campaign, Brown said, include a biennial review by the Montana Chamber of Commerce of the Montana Supreme Court released in 2020 ranking justices by how business-friendly the chamber deemed their rulings.

"Justice Gustafson scored the lowest of any of the sitting justices in terms of judicial score on pro-business matters," Brown said. "She scored a 64% which would be a D, if you're applying that to grades."

McMahon, meanwhile, has drawn the ire of Brown's supporters for his rulings in both civil and criminal matters. McMahon ruled against the Legislature's so-called campus carry bill, which would have, in part, prohibited the Montana Board of Regents from regulating firearms on college campuses. Brown also mentioned McMahon's ruling in the negligent homicide case of Gregg Trude; during sentencing McMahon revealed that he had a relationship with the victim in the case and the Supreme Court's sentencing review division later found his sentence was "clearly excessive."

McMahon has stood by his rulings and referred to his judicial philosophy as being that of a "strict constructionist."

Gustafson, meanwhile, has pushed back against criticism of her rulings, saying her record has been "consistent and reliable."

Brown is the only candidate who is not a sitting judge, but he has been a practicing attorney for 17 years and, after graduating from law school in Seattle, clerked for the Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court.

The PSC is a five-member quasi-judicial body that regulates monopoly utilities, and Brown said that process should translate to the high court.

"That means we engage in judicial-like functions," Brown said. "… Essentially, we serve the same function as district court judges because we do findings of fact and conclusions of law and hear testimony from witnesses and rule on procedural matters and evidentiary matters."

Brown has been leading the PSC for a little more than a year. In episodes that happened before he was elected, the agency fielded broad criticism for an internal email-spying scandal and a financial compliance audit that revealed falsified documents and lax spending practices. Brown said he believes his time spent on the commission so far has helped settle the discord between members.

Asked what he might say to voters who see his campaign for the Supreme Court, roughly a year into his term at the PSC, as abandoning his post, Brown said he didn't take the question lightly. 

"That's an equation I certainly took into account when people were reaching out to me to run," he said. "I felt like the experience I bring to the court can do a lot of positive things for the court system in Montana. It's all about public service and moving the state forward."

Brown has also been the staff attorney for the state Republican party and once represented Western Tradition Partnership, the so-called "dark money" group that challenged Montana's election disclosure laws. The group's challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court and won based on the Citizens United ruling that allowed unlimited spending by corporations in elections. Brown and other Republicans have heralded the ruling as a win for free speech. 

"My entire career has been spent representing agriculture, agricultural producers and small businesses, and fighting for the constitutional rights of Montanans," Brown said Tuesday. "… The Supreme Court position is one of the most important positions in Montana because the determination of individual rights and the range of constitutional protections and also because an orderly court system is important to resolve disputes between parties, and I think my background on the Public Service Commission for the last 14 months shows that I'm in a uniquely qualified position to strengthen the Montana Supreme Court."

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