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Ingrid Gustafson reflects on high-dollar, hard-fought Montana Supreme Court race

Posted at 9:04 AM, Nov 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-11 11:04:50-05

BILLINGS — The dust is settling from Tuesday’s election, with most contests now having clear winners. One race stood out for setting a record for the most money ever spent in a Montana Supreme Court race—but it also represented a new tone in campaigning.

Newly re-elected Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson of Billings said Wednesday it's the hardest race she's ever run.

“I wasn’t naïve in that. We have had some contested elections, progressively higher-dollar amounts is spent on campaigns, and an attempt to make them increasingly partisan," Gustafson said.

Sitting down with MTN the day after the election, Gustafson says she's glad to be back into the swing of her regular judicial duties.

“I brought a lot of experience to the job and the campaign and my thought was to run on my experience and my independence and the work that I have done, which I’m very proud of," Gustafson said.

The race for Montana Supreme Court Justice 2 was between Gustafson, the incumbent, and James Brown, a Helena-based attorney who declined doing any interviews post-election. Gustafson beat Brown by a margin of about 40,000 votes.

Overall, it was a race that ended up bringing in a lot of out-of-state cash.

“This race was unprecedented in the amount of money that was spent on it, the intensity of the debate about it. It was a pretty nasty race. It at times felt pretty personal and had this really amazing partisan overtone that we’ve never seen in a Supreme Court race before," says Lee Banville, director of the University of Montana School of Journalism.

Fundraising reports filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices show $1.5 million spent between the candidates by the mid-October reporting deadline and by early November. The Montana Free Press reports that amount crested at nearly $3 million.

Looking ahead, Banville wonders if the rhetoric of this campaign will be a new norm in court races or just an example of our current political climate.

“It kind of leaves us like, where do was go from here? Is this going to be every campaign in the future or are they all going to be big money, very clearly partisan affairs? Or is this the aberration? Is this going to be a one-time thing that everybody is going to look back at and be like ‘whoa, what happened then? We don’t know yet. It’s going to take a couple years until we have more elections, and it’s going to take a couple of cycles to see if, was that Wheat race and this race the aberration or are they the new norm?" Banville said.

(He was referencing former Justice Mike Wheat, Gustafson's predecessor who also faced attacks from conservative groups during his successful 2014 re-election campaign.)

For Gustafson, it's an opportunity to keep serving the people of Montana with politics out of the picture.

"My experience with the Montana Supreme Court is that it is a non-partisan branch of government and I hear all these characterizations that they’re this or that they’re that and framing things in political jargon," Gustafson said. "My experience is that they’re none of that, what my experience is that they’re seven folks with different backgrounds but all really great commitment to the law and fidelity to the Constitution and we are trying very hard to apply our Constitution and laws in a very even-handed way to all Montanans without agenda."