HELENA — In the last fundraising period both incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and her challenger, Montana Public Service Commission President James Brown, raised more than six figures in campaign contributions making the race for Montana Supreme Court Justice 2 one of the most high-profile on the ballot this election cycle.
And the partisanship in this nonpartisan race is increasing in the final weeks before Election Day.
Montana Republican leaders threw their support behind Brown early in his campaign, with the Montana State Republican Party sending our mailers naming Brown’s high-level Republican endorsements.
Groups independent of the candidates are spending hundreds of thousands on TV ads and campaign mailers. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent half a million on a TV ad painting Gustafson as anti-business. The Montana Federation of Public Employees sent out mailers calling Brown a lobbyist who can’t be trusted.
Gustafson, who was appointed first to a district court judgeship by a Republican governor and then appointed to the Montana Supreme Court by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, said voters should check the box next to her name due to her many years of experience. She was a district court judge for 14 years and on the Montana Supreme Court for the last five.
“While I was a district court judge I handled almost 15,000 cases,” Gustafson said, in an interview with MTN News. “And another 1,100 at the supreme court.”
Gustafson’s ads feature her conservative supporters, including former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, as well as supporters such as retired Yellowstone County District Court Judge Gregory Todd. Todd was also the former president of the Montana Judges Association. Todd was a central figure in the disagreements between the Montana judges and the Montana State Legislature last session.
In his retirement announcement, Todd said he worried for the future of the judiciary given the challenges facing institutions in Montana and across the country. He elaborated further in an interview with the Daily Montanan, saying, “It’s one thing to disagree with a judge’s ruling, it’s another thing to try to replace them with a judge who has to take a loyalty oath to those in power.”
Montana Public Service Commission Brown said he is running for Gustafson’s seat to restore balance to the Montana Supreme Court. He wants to ensure lawmakers make the laws and the courts uphold them, Brown said.
“Montanans want justices who will merely apply the law as written and not to be policy makers,” Brown said, in an interview with MTN News.
However, in an ad for Brown, he said he would stand up to President Joe Biden. When asked about it, Brown said he didn’t consider it a partisan statement.
“That comment is directed to ensuring that Montana’s court system isn’t influenced by federal overreach,” Brown said.
Brown said he’s also always been disturbed that attorneys can donate to a judge’s reelection campaigns while the attorney’s case is before a judge. If elected, Brown said he’d promise to not accept donations from attorneys involved in ongoing Montana Supreme Court cases.
A conservative political consultant made similar comments in two complaints filed against Gustafson with the Judicial Standards Commission by conservative political consultant Jake Eaton. Eaton is also the treasurer for the conservative Political Action Committee Montana for Judicial Accountability.
Eaton sent copies of the complaints to local media the same day many election offices sent out absentee ballots.
Gustafson said she hadn’t seen the complaints, but said she thought the release of them was an attempt as an October surprise by a paid political operative.
“To me they are a complete and total partisan political stunt,” Gustafson said.
The complaints accused Gustafson of violating the Montana Judicial Code of Conduct after she did not recuse herself from cases involving plaintiffs who had donated to her campaign. In those cases, she concurred with the majority opinion, which found in favor of the plaintiffs.
The court issued its opinions in the cases a couple of months ago, but Eaton didn’t file his complaints until Oct. 14. Cases before the commission are sealed until a decision can be reached, and because of the late submittal of the complaints, the commission will not decide on the merits of the complaints until after the election.
The commission’s rules say it can dismiss a case if it is made public prior to a resolution. Eaton said he had not heard anything from the commission regarding possible dismissal and did not expect to.