Candidates for District Court judges and Supreme Court justices in Montana would be required to run on partisan labels instead of as nonpartisan office seekers as they now do, under a proposal heard Tuesday.
House Bill 521, by Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway, is a proposed referendum that would appear on the November 2012 ballot if the Legislature approves it.
“The issue is greater transparency in the judicial branch,” More told the House State Administration Committee.
It would help the voters to know “the individual biases brought to the bench” by anyone running for a judgeship, he said.
“We all bring our biases to the table,” More said, adding: “I think it’s just a matter of maturity to require that (judicial candidates) reveal those biases going into an election.”
The bill drew support from Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, and a longtime critic of the Supreme Court. Balyeat is sponsoring a bill to require Supreme Court candidates to run in regional districts instead of statewide.
He said 27 states elect their judges, and 15 of those have judges “with partisan elections or partisan involvement.”
“As courts throughout America and especially here in Montana have become increasingly activist and are legislating from the bench, there’s really only one way to put a check on that — transparency for voters,” Balyeat said.
Not only do these courts legislate from the bench, but “they become a super legislature,” he said. “They retroactively change law. They can throw out an initiative or law.”
The opponents to the bill included Ed Bartlett, representing the Montana Judges Association and the State Bar of Montana.
When he was president of the State Bar, Bartlett said he met his counterparts in other states with partisan judicial elections.
“To a person, those people have told me it is not a good idea,” Bartlett said. “There is a reason we have an independent judiciary.”
He quoted this saying: “Justice is blind. It is not biased.” More later called this adage “wistful naiveté.”
Another opponent, Niki Zupanic, public policy director of the ACLU of Montana, said, “We strongly feel this will entrench our judiciary in partisan politics.”
If Montanans want more transparency in judicial races, they should push for more candidate debates and for the media to be more diligent in covering these campaigns, she said.
“I believe this bill is trying to turn the judiciary into a Legislature,” Zupanic said.
In response to Balyeat’s comment about judicial activism, “that’s just code for a decision you don’t agree with,” Zupanic said.
The committee didn’t immediately vote on the bill.