A Republican proposal to turn Montana’s judicial elections into partisan races went down in the state House on Tuesday, as 23 Republicans joined all 33 Democrats in the chamber to defeat the bill.
“These candidates are partisan. Our judicial candidates do have their own mindsets, they do have their own thoughts, they do have their own worldview,” said Rep. Matt Regier, a Kalispell Republican who sponsored House Bill 342. “I believe we should let the voters know that.”
Democratic Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, of Helena, argued such a change would spell the end of an independent judiciary in Montana, and noted that other states, including Texas, have in recent years sought to reverse their decisions to bring the party system to judicial races.
“Instead of allowing courts and judges to exercise their independent judgment in cases, they would now be bound by their respective platforms,” Farris-Olsen said.
Republican Rep. David Bedey, of Hamilton, acknowledged that partisanship exists in the judiciary branch, but argued that passing the bill would be “akin to throwing gasoline on a fire.”
An amendment to the measure offered by Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, of Billings, would have allowed elections for local judicial districts, county and municipal judges and justices of the peace to remain nonpartisan.
“There can still be the sense of community in terms of what that lawyer’s credentials are, what that lawyer’s reputation is, and I certainly agree with the sponsor that that’s a different question than what we’re talking about with statewide races," Mercer said.
Other Republicans disagreed, however. Rep. Barry Usher, who represents rural Yellowstone and Musselshell counties, argued the amendment “waters down” the bill. The amendment failed after Democrats joined with some Republicans in voting it down.
The bill ultimately failed to clear the House by a 44-56 vote on second reading.
The bill was one of several brought by Republicans this session that aim to tilt the judiciary toward partisan elections.