Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, the high court's longest-serving member, announced Thursday he will seek reelection this year for another eight-year term.
Rice, 64, has served on the Supreme Court for 20 years, following his appointment by Republican Gov. Judy Martz in 2001. He spent three terms as a Republican member of the Montana House of Representatives prior to his appointment.
In an interview Thursday, Rice said his decision to announce his candidacy on Jan. 6 — the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump — wasn't accidental.
“It was important to me, being symbolic of some of the things we’ve seen in the last couple years that attempt to undermine our institutions, and I think we need to be very clear in resisting that and educating our people on the value of our institutions,” Rice said.
In a press release announcing his candidacy, he referred to "challenges and efforts to undermine civic institutions and the democratic process," language that he said could also be applied to incidents of rioting during widespread protests against George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020.
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“Those are probably the symptoms of some underlying misunderstandings in our society and the need for better education about the democratic system of government that we have,” Rice said.
Last year, Rice was the only justice to file a court challenge against a legislative subpoena issued by Republican lawmakers seeking communications regarding polling conducted among judges in the state on pending legislation during the 2021 session. The Legislature waged a months-long battle for the communications, arguing that justices may have a already demonstrated a bias against proposed legislation that could be challenged in court.
Other justices on the high court had blocked the subpoena, arguing that the communications are confidential and that the Legislature lacked the authority to demand the information.
The high court ultimately determined that the subpoenas were invalid because they served no legitimate purpose. In Rice’s case, a state district judge found that state law provided no authority for the Legislature to subpoena documents. Republican legislators ultimately withdrew their subpoena, but in December filed to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the state's justices should not have ruled on a case that determined the fate of their own subpoenas. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet signaled whether it will hear the case.
In a press release announcing his candidacy, Rice stated that a “properly functioning court, acting with impartiality, is in a position of strength to ensure that other branches of government stay within their respective constitutional boundaries.”
Rice said those words were mostly lifted from his last campaign announcement, in 2014, but added that “sometimes events have a way of making them more applicable."
“I want to be clear that my campaign isn’t going to be about revisiting past conflicts and controversies,” he said.
Judicial elections in Montana are nonpartisan, although last year’s legislative session included attempts by Republicans to require those candidates to affiliate themselves with political parties. Rice believes the current system preserves Montanans’ belief in an independent judiciary.
“I think there is a desire on the part of Montana citizens to not make the courts political, to not engage those candidates in a political fashion,” he said. “I think people approach the election of judges differently than they do the partisan political offices and that’s a real treasure of the Treasure State.”
Born to U.S. military parents in Ontario, Canada, Rice grew up in Eastern Montana and graduated from Montana State University with a political science degree. He earned his law degree from the University of Montana, and worked as a public defender, private attorney and on the state Board of Personnel Appeals before his appointment to the Supreme Court.