Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shining the light on the Montana judiciary

One of the major liberal coups in Montana has been the way that the Montana Trial Lawyers Association has dominated the entire judicial selection and election process from top to bottom.

The effects were most pointedly brought to light during the last legislative redistricting, where the Democrats knew that the Montana Supreme Court was in the party pocket, and could be depended on to bring home the bacon -- which it did.

The 2004 elections, where Republicans won a strong majority of the state-wide vote but lost both houses of the legislature was the payoff. The majority on the Montana Supreme Court really delivered for their party.

But what is writ large at the Supreme Court level is writ more finely at various levels in the Montana judiciary, where money certainly corrupts.

According to an AP article in the Gazette, a bill proposed by Rep. Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy,

would require all state, district and municipal judges to remove themselves from a case when an involved attorney donated to that judge's most recent election campaign.

There are certainly arguments to be made against such restrictions, and some are outlined in the article. But the little "regular" contributions of $250 are hardly the problem.

The problem (as the Gazette never seemed to point out) was best illustrated in the 2004 Supreme Court race between Cindy Younkin and Jim Nelson.

Nelson was supported by a huge trial lawyer's PAC.

Alexander Blewett of Great Falls donated $20,000

Gene Jarussi of Billings donated $10,000

Randall Bishop of Billings donated $10,000, as did David Slovak and Tom Lewis of Great Falls

The list goes on and on. Does the Democrat party, which the Trial Lawyer's Association supports no less enthusiastically, really want to do something about the climate of corruption?

Then how about having the Democrats ban trial lawyer PACs for judicial races, which are supposed to elect a non-biased judiciary? What could be more corrupt than buying the judges and justices? Are we seriously to believe that the trial laywers are going to put that kind of money into someone that they aren't convinced is going to vote their way?

And at the same time, political contributions to openly partisan races, where everybody knows what the score is, have been brought down to the ridiculously low level of $130 per contribution. So contributions are limited when it comes to things that are supposed to be decided at the ballot box -- legislative and other political races. But money is quietly poured into PACs for "nonpartisan" judicial races.

The problem with the Republican party and conservatives in Montana is that they haven't figured out that judicial races are considered to be partisan political races by Democrats, races that they are determined to win, since they love to settle things in the courts rather than at the ballot box. Leave it to the GOP to bring a knife to a gunfight.