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.