HELENA – Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice said Monday he supports judicial elections because they force judges to be accountable for their decisions, while judicial appointments can create a “disconnect” in accountability.
Rice spoke after filing for re-election with the Montana Secretary of State’s Office. He is seeking his third eight-year term after being appointed by Republican Gov. Judy Martz to fill a vacancy on the high court in 2001.
Each system of selecting judges has its downside, whether it is appointment or election, but Montana’s nonpartisan elections are good for judges, he said.
“I have to go down to the county fair and hand out my brochure and shake hands and look people in the eye and ask them for their vote. That reminds the judge about who they work for,” Rice said.
He contrasted that to the federal judicial system, where judges are appointed.
“I think in the federal system there can be a disconnect to accountability because they don’t have to be accountable to anyone,” he said. “I know that they are (accountable) in their own minds and work very hard to be accountable, but the state election system forces them, in my view.”
Two of Montana’s seven Supreme Court justice seats are up for election this year, along with nine district judgeships across the state, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Besides Rice, Justice Mike Wheat has said he will run for re-election. No opponents have filed challenges to either incumbent yet, with the candidate filing period running until March 10.
Advocates for switching to a system to appoint judges include retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has previously said the state should incorporate the merit system of appointment in which a bipartisan citizen panel would recommend candidates for the governor to appoint.
The appointment would be followed by popular elections on whether to retain the judges, so as to keep that accountability, O’Connor said in Billings in 2010.
There will be at least one new face on the state Supreme Court this year, now that former Justice Brian Morris has resigned to take an appointment as a federal judge in Great Falls.
The Judicial Nominations Commission, which will recommend three to five candidates to Gov. Steve Bullock, announced Monday that it was accepting applications for a replacement to serve out Morris’ term, which runs until 2020.
Rice called Morris a centrist and an intellectual force who helped steer the high court from an “activist court” known for legislating from the bench when Rice first joined 13 years ago, to one that takes a more “moderate” approach now.
“I’m hoping his replacement will come with similar attitudes and perspectives, because I believe he played a very important role in trying to bring the court to a good balance,” Rice said.
However the Supreme Court changes after the appointment and elections, Rice said the state’s judicial system will have to deal with challenges in the way cases are being litigated.
More people are representing themselves in legal actions, with up to 30 percent of the Supreme Court’s cases now involving at least one person who doesn’t have a lawyer, Rice said.
Not having an attorney at that stage likely hurts the person’s case and drains the court system, he said.
Meanwhile, the state Office of the Public Defender needs better salaries and resources to attract and keep lawyers who represent people who can’t afford legal representation, he said.
The Legislature last year approved expanding the public defender’s office, but more help is needed, Rice said.
Montana attorneys are required to do 50 hours of pro bono work a year, and there are other legal services programs for people who can’t afford attorneys, said Montana Trial Lawyers Association Executive Director Al Smith.
But there is more work that can be done, and many people don’t know about the programs that are offered, he said.
“There’s just no way we can represent everybody who comes to our attention,” Smith said. “The legal system is expensive. If you have a lot of people who are making low wages or no wages at all, they are going to have a tough time getting an attorney.”