HELENA – For the first time since 2006, Montana’s general election ballot will have no contested races for seats on the Montana Supreme Court. Instead, voters will have a yes-or-no vote on whether two incumbent justices should retain their seats.
No challengers filed to run against Justices Beth Baker and Ingrid Gustafson, so they will instead face retention elections.
Baker was first elected to the court in 2010, after years as an attorney with the Montana Attorney General’s office and in private practice in Helena. She said she’s proud of the work she’s done on making the state’s legal system more equitable.
“To be more proactive, to make sure our justice system works for all Montanans – that’s the piece that I’m passionate about and have worked a lot on these last few years, and want to continue in that area,” she said.
Baker has chaired the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, which seeks to expand opportunities for low- and moderate-income Montanans to get legal help, especially in areas of civil law.
“We still have a lot of work to do in this area,” she said. “I think that in my position on the Supreme Court, I’m in a place where I can help continue to make our system more efficient, make our courts work better for all the parties who come before it and help keep a fair system of justice throughout the state.”
Gustafson is the court’s newest member, appointed in December to replace retiring Justice Mike Wheat. She had previously served 14 years as a district court judge for Yellowstone County.
“I had an idea when I came to this position that my experience at the district court level would be helpful, but I don’t think I recognized just how helpful,” she said. “I’ve been exposed to the types of cases that we’ve had at the trench level, and so I have a good idea what’s going on there.”
Gustafson has worked extensively on issues like sentencing reform. She served on a state commission that proposed changes to reduce the number of people in prison in Montana. She also started Yellowstone County’s first drug court, which attempts to rehabilitate drug offenders instead of simply incarcerating them.
She said she wants to continue looking at improvements to the legal system.
“We’re working hard to make changes to the criminal justice system, to improve its overall fairness, improve offender rehabilitation, improve the bottom line,” said Gustafson.
Baker said judicial races don’t always get as much attention as other elections, but they shouldn’t be ignored.
“If you’re in court, people come to court with the most important issues of their lives,” she said. “So these positions are critical to the proper functioning of our society.”
Baker is seeking another eight-year term on the court, while Gustafson is running to fill the last four years of Wheat’s unexpired term. Mail ballots are scheduled to go out to voters the second week of October.