I am honored to serve since 1999 as Missoula County Justice of the Peace, Department II, and appreciate your encouragement and support. I also have served since 2003 on the Montana Supreme Court Commission on Judicial Ethics. Our Commission of 11 was tasked with adapting the American Bar Association Model of Judicial Conduct to fit our judicial system and judicial elections here in Montana.
In January 2009, the Code of Judicial Conduct was adopted. It was distributed to every Montana judge and lawyer and established mandatory rules on ethical conduct for all judges and judicial candidates.
The rules of the Code are in accordance with the United States and Montana constitutions and speak to the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers between the administrative, legislative and judicial branches of government.
To quote the pertinent parts of the Code, “An independent, fair and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice... Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity and competence … A judge should expect to be the subject of public scrutiny that might be viewed as burdensome if applied to other citizens, and must accept the restrictions imposed by the Code.” As concerned citizens, we hold all judges and judicial candidates to these high ethical standards.
Over the years, I have pointedly endeavored to maintain my independence and impartiality and stay out of local politics. At this time, however, my oath to uphold the law and follow the Code requires me to take appropriate action when I witness misconduct by a judge or judicial candidate. Accordingly, and sadly, I must point out what I have seen as the unethical behavior of one candidate.
Campaigns for judicial office are necessarily different from partisan campaigns. Nonjudicial candidates are free to advertise endorsements made by anyone. Judicial candidates are not. Preserving the ethics and honesty of an independent judiciary and the validity of an election that is supposed to be nonpartisan is essential in a democracy. The Code states, in short, that a judge or a judicial candidate shall not use endorsements from any nonjudicial office-holder or candidate. This rule is not optional; it is mandatory. Matt Lowy’s website and current judicial campaign literature list over 25 endorsements from politicians currently in office or running for election. It is hard to see this as anything but a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, bringing discredit and disgrace not only to himself but also to these politicians and their parties.
Additionally, there are statutes that govern the behavior of candidates for any elected office. The law of Montana (Section 2-2-121 (3) (a) of the Montana Code Annotated) reads, “A public officer or public employee may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office.”
Matt Lowy, a county employee and candidate for judicial office, distributed campaign information to the clerks in Justice Court while they were at their work stations in the county courthouse, during court hours. Several people confronted him about his actions. When I confronted him to tell him that his actions were absolutely inappropriate, he replied, “Even if it’s wrong, I would do it again.”
The Code of Judicial Conduct (Rule 4.2) allows me to publicly support or oppose candidates for judicial office. I urge you to choose an ethical, independent and truly nonpartisan candidate for Justice of the Peace, Department I. You be the judge. Whether you cast your vote for Marie Andersen, Matt Ereksen, Bev Smith or Harlan Wells, you will be choosing a candidate who, as far as I have seen, has demonstrated good judgment and judicial temperament, while embracing the highest ethical standards. Sadly, I cannot say the same about the other candidate.
Karen A. Orzech is Missoula County Justice of the Peace, Department II.