Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Montana Supreme Court races and Democratic partisan connections -- a curious lack of curiosity from our press

It's Wednesday and time for a little (ostensibly nonpartisan) Montana politics.

Whether at the state level or the national level, our highest courts exert a tremendous influence on our public and private lives. Montana's Supreme Court members are chosen by direct election, and yet, voters tend to be particularly poorly informed about the choices available to them. What little makes its way out into the public consciousness tends, because of the nonpartisan nature of the campaigning, to be less than informative.

In order to get an idea of the judicial temperament and attitudes that a prospective justice will bring to the bench, one must look to peripheral and oblique cues.

In a recent article in the Billings Gazette (written originally for the Helena Independent Record,) the tedious process continues. One reads through the information in the article without gaining much in the way of enlightenment. How would each of the candidates -- Great Falls attorney Elizabeth Best, state public defender Ed Sheehy, and District Judge Laurie McKinnon (pictured above) -- tend to approach issues of jurisprudence that Montanans might be concerned about? Not much there to tell us one way or another.

No, as noted before, we must look to indirect clues.

For example, a letter supporting Elizabeth Best, filled with pleasant platitudes about upholding the Montana Constitution, recently appeared in the Gazette, but one needed to do a little looking to see that the writer is a board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization whose interests tend to coincide with those of the Democratic Party. Nothing wrong with any of that -- the point here is simply to illustrate the reading of tea-leaves that has to go on in order to figure out who to vote for.

We do learn from the article mentioned above that an organization of which GOP state Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge is an officer recently sent out an informational mailer, one that the MH household received, incidentally. From the contents of the mailer, one would gather that conservative types might tend to support Judge McKinnon over the other two candidates for reasons that will be discussed below. Based on the limited information available, she is indeed for now, the MH candidate of choice.

It is interesting that Sanjay Talwani's article for the Independent Record mentions that a GOP senator supports McKinnon, as well as the fact that the mailer in question criticized Sheehy for his work in defending the "Christmas Day Killer." ( Sheehy is of course quite right to defend himself on that particular charge, since a public defender by definition does that sort of thing.)

That is not the interesting point. What is interesting Talwani's failure to mention that the overwhelming thrust of the mailer was that both Elizabeth Best and Ed Sheehy have made numerous political contributions, almost all to Democratic candidates. Judge McKinnon, the mailer points out, has made no political contributions, and thus can justifiably be seen as the least partisan of the three -- something about which those who value the notion of nonpartisan judicial races might be interested.

Why, then, does the article imply a possible (indirect, no less) partisan connection, or at least affinity, between McKinnon and a Republican state senator but fail to mention at all the direct and documented Democratic partisan political connections of Best and Sheehy? It isn't like Talwani had to trust the mailer's accuracy -- political contributions are a matter of open record, and the homework isn't that hard to do. Failure to address any of this suggests an odd lack of curiosity on the part of a Lee newspaper reporter writing a piece destined to appear in most of the state's major newspapers. The question bespeaks imponderables.

Until and unless Montana laws change to a different method of choosing Supreme Court justices, Montanans will have to continue with the games of shadow-boxing, charades, and hidden agendas that characterize these elections. And for now, it appears that the person to vote for is McKinnon.


Steve said...

I would like to say that Sheehy is a friend of mine, but he is also from Butte, so I think he had to be a Democrat.

Ed is kind of a nerd, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of case law which would really benefit him on the Court.

Remember, you get to vote for two.

Montana Headlines said...

You know, I missed that somehow that you get to vote for two. That's a little embarrassing! Thanks for that info.

Bob Smith said...

Interestingly, the author (Helena IR reporter SANJAY TALWANI) of this article is a former Washington, DC Deputy Press Secretary for ND (Dem.) Sen. Byron Dorgan.

According to Follow the Money, MR. TALWANI's only campaign donations have been to Democrat Brian Schweitzer.

I tried to respectfully make this comment on the Billings Gazette online, but was denied.

When I called to ask why, they informed me that these facts were "critical of the media", thus falling outside their comment standards.

Apparently, transparency is good for the government goose, but not the media gander.

Montana Headlines said...

Most interesting. I looked him up on that site and indeed he made two contributions to Gov. Schweitzer -- one for $75 and another for $125.

I didn’t find anything about him on any of the other political contribution sites, but I believe they only list contributions that are tracked by the FEC, and only contributions over a certain amount.

Unless your comment was more colorful than the one you have left here, I would think that the Gazette should have let the readers decide.

Your information is most interesting because of the fact that Mr. Talwani omitted the information about the political contributions of the Supreme Court candidates.


Bob Smith said...

I can assure you, civil discourse is my weapon of choice.

I simply stated the facts and noted that it was "probably just coincidence."

Tongue and cheek? Yes.

A comment that should have been censored? No.

It's a sad statement on the Montana media.

Anonymous said...

This story about Best DOES mention her contributions to Dem candidates, when she did not mention them at a Pachyderm meeting.

"Asked about her past campaign contributions, she said she’d contributed to several candidates for Supreme Court positions, including current Justices Beth Baker, Pat Cotter and Brian Morris.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, she has also contributed over the years to Democratic candidates, including current U.S. House hopeful Franke Wilmer; U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his 2006 primary opponent, John Morrison; U.S. Sen. Max Baucus; the 2004 presidential campaign of John Edwards; and current Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2000."

Montana Headlines said...

Yes, it does mention them, which is commendable. It sounds like she tried to dodge the question by only admitting to judicial contributions, while conveniently omitting to tell the assembled GOP Pachyderms about her partisan contributions.

Why didn’t Talwani report this fact, if that is indeed how it happened? He wouldn’t need to be mean about it. Just a simple statement of “Best did not tell the assembled group that she had made donations to numerous Democratic candidates, including...” If she attempted to fudge her way through the question, that is newsworthy.

Finally, starting out by reporting her carrying around copies of the U.S. and Montana Constitutions amount to dog-whistles for those on the right. Casual readers (many of whom won’t make it to the end of the article) would be under the impression that Best is a strict Constitutionalist and the second coming of Anton Scalia -- which given her trial lawyer background and partisan affiliation, is very unlikely.

All in all, a somewhat misleading article, in my opinion, but with certain better features than the one above. If Best is one of the two who goes on, I’ll probably comment on this article in another post -- thanks for the information!