Montana Supreme Court: High Court race pits established judge against outspoken lawyer

By: 
Freddy Monares
Community News Service, UM School of Journalism
Dirk Sandefur
Kristen Juras

 

If choosing the next member of the Montana Supreme Court was a job interview, Dirk Sandefur argues the decision between himself and law professor Kristen Juras would be simple.

With 14 years experience as a judge in Cascade County and the backing of all living former members of the court, Sandefur is quick to make the case he is the natural choice for voters.

“I’ve been doing that work in the first instance, that makes me uniquely qualified and the only person qualified with relevant experience in this race to decide the cases that actually come before the court,” Sandefur said.

But that experience is a big part of why Juras contends she is the right fit for the seat being vacated by Patricia O’Brien Cotter. Juras said that her 34 years of legal experience representing small business owners, farmers, ranchers and individuals is a view sorely missing from the high court. She believes the Supreme Court has legislated from the bench in the past years and would benefit some diversity of experience.

“We have people who have been former county attorney’s, we have a former district court judge, we have a former administrative law judge, in my opinion those basis are covered,” Juras said. “And the base that isn’t covered is somebody with the sort of daily legal experience representing small business owners, farmers, ranchers, individuals, non-profit organizations and what we call a private sector, a transactional practice.”

The race for the Supreme Court has boiled down to perspective. Come election time, Montanans are going to have to vote on what they think the Supreme Court will need the most; experience or a new voice.

For one of the state’s largest unions, the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers Association (MEA-MFT), they choose experience. The union has already sent out two separate mailings to its members urging them to vote for Sandefur. MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said that decision stems from the judge’s past rulings.

“Dirk has a good record as a district judge of correctly interpreting, so far as he is able, those matters that deal with our constitution and how we would go about making law in the state of Montana,” Feaver said.

It’s a record that has earned the endorsement from all the former Supreme Court justices currently alive, as well as the justice he hopes to replace, Patricia O’Brien Cotter.

Juras, meanwhile, has drawn most of her support from individual attorneys from various law firms across the state.

Attorney and former Bozeman legislator Cindy Younkin believes Juras, if elected, will work to rein in a court she feels has grown too activist. Younkin said the court has been making public policy decisions instead of waiting for the legislature to act.

“You don’t know what the court is going to do,” Younkin said. “You got a lack of consistency and lack of predictability that you have zero control over it. And, at least, in the legislative process the public has the opportunity to be involved in that process and you do not when it comes to Supreme Court decisions.”

But along with Juras’ 34 years of experience in law, she does have a controversial past at the University of Montana. Juras led a public campaign in 2009 against a sex column published in the Montana Kaimin.

Media criticized Juras for trying to censor the publication, but she countered she was trying to point out that the column was not professional. Censoring the Kaimin was never the agenda, she said.

The story became an issue in this election when Juras posted to social media that the column had been discontinued due to the sexual assault scandal at UM, but the newspaper countered it ended only because the author graduated. The paper went on to call for Juras’ defeat this fall.

A few years later Juras was at the center of attention again when the Christian Legal Society she served as the adviser to filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging they had been discriminated against because the group wasn’t getting recognition from the law school.

 

In both cases, Juras stressed she will stick to an unpopular stand if she believes the cause is right.

“If I believe that a position is correct, I’ll take that position and I’ll take a stand,” Juras said. “ … and I think that’s an important characteristic for a judge, somebody who is willing to make a decision that they believe is the lawful decision, the right decision; even if that’s an unpopular decision.”

 

 

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