Montana’s only contested Supreme Court race in 2016 is a quiet affair so far – but the two leading candidates say they won’t be surprised if it ends up attracting big, splashy expenditures by outside money.
“I am expecting outside money to come into this race, dumped into Montana to attempt to malign me and support my opponent,” says District Judge Dirk Sandefur of Great Falls. “The way they do that isn’t by supporting that candidate directly, but by attacking the other candidates, distorting their record, smearing them as they can, personally and professionally.”
Sandefur notes that a Republican consulting firm from Florida and a Washington, D.C., attorney already have been “poking around in Montana,” requesting records on his pay, travel records, office expenses and past cases.
Sandefur’s main opponent is Kristen Juras, a Great Falls attorney, who said she hopes if outside groups start spending on the race, “that they would focus on our qualifications, our backgrounds, and the differences between (us).”
“I am a voter who is turned off by negative campaigning, mud-slinging,” she told MTN News this week.
Juras, 60, and Sandefur, 54, are running for an open Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice Pat Cotter.
A third candidate, Great Falls attorney Eric Mills, has not raised or spent any money on his campaign. He did not return messages asking about his campaign – or lack thereof.
Juras and Sandefur are expected to be the top vote-getters in the June 7 primary election, advancing to a face-off in the general election.
While the race is nonpartisan, Republicans and many business leaders are lining up behind Juras and prominent Democrats and trial attorneys are behind Sandefur.
The race has the potential to tip the ideological balance of Montana’s seven-member Supreme Court, which has a majority that some view as leaning left – particularly the business community.
The two main groups likely to get involved in the race are the Republican State Leadership Committee (RLSC), based in Washington, D.C., and the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, whose members are plaintiffs’ attorneys who often represent people or businesses suing for redress and damages.
Together, the two groups spent $1.1 million on advertising and other campaign material in the 2014 Supreme Court race between Justice Mike Wheat and challenger Lawrence VanDyke.
The trial lawyers supported Wheat, who defeated VanDyke easily to win a second term.
The RLSC said it supports Juras, but “at this point we aren’t detailing plans or decisions on whether to engage” in the race.
David Paoli, a Missoula attorney and chairman of the committee overseeing the trial lawyers’ political action committee – Montana Law PAC – told MTN News it hasn’t decided who it will support in the race this year.
However, its members already have been giving individually to Sandefur. The PAC had $104,000 in its bank account as of last week.
Paoli also said he doesn’t consider Montana Law PAC to be an “outside group,” because its members live and work in Montana – whereas the Republican State Leadership Committee is based in Washington, D.C., and funded by corporations and wealthy individuals from outside Montana.
“We all have small businesses in Montana,” he said. “We are nothing like Koch Industries and all of these corporations and wealthy, out-of-state people.”
The RLSC has formed two political-action committees in Montana, including the Judicial Fairness Initiative Montana PAC. The Judicial Fairness Initiative is the group’s efforts to help elect conservative judges in state races across the nation.
The RLSC reported raising about $19 million in 2015 and the first three months of this year. Its donor list is a who’s who of corporate America, including Koch Industries, Wal-Mart, General Motors, General Electric, ExxonMobil and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
So far, the RLSC has not channeled any money into its Montana-affiliated PACs.
Adam Temple, a spokesman for RLSC in Washington, D.C., said RLSC believes Juras would be “an excellent justice (who would) help bring the court into closer alignment with the prevailing opinion of Montana voters.”
Temple did not answer whether RLSC hired the Washington, D.C., attorney or Florida-based firm, Data Targeting Inc., that made a detailed public-records request in March to Cascade County, seeking records on Sandefur.
The Data Targeting Inc. employee who made the request, Alex Holzbach, when contacted by MTN News, said the call was “breaking up” and the phone went dead. He ignored a follow-up text message and email.
Press accounts of Data Targeting describe it a “Republican consulting firm” that has worked on various campaigns.
Juras and Sandefur said they have no control over the spending of outside groups – although they hope voters will look at their actual qualifications, instead of deciding based on negative attacks.
Juras said she’s running for the Supreme Court because she brings the perspective of someone who has represented small business, agriculture and individuals “in the daily legal battles that they face.”
“I think it’s important to have on the court someone who has formed businesses, drafted easements, been very involved in family law disputes – and bring that practical understanding in those areas to the court,” she said.
She also said she brings no political agenda to the court, and will “truly stick to the role of a justice, and that is fairly, impartially and consistently applying the laws that the Legislature has adopted.”
Sandefur, a state district judge for 14 years, said “this whole issue of perspective is somewhat of a red herring.”
The Supreme Court is not a representative body, he said, and voters should choose someone who has experience deciding issues of fact and law, under the state constitution.
“The main difference between the two of us simply boils down to relevant experience,” he told MTN News. “I’ve got a record and reputation over time of being fair, decisive and impartial, and people feel that they get a fair shake – win, lose or draw.”