Good justices must have more than legal expertise alone. They must have a willingness to hear both sides, and to listen with patience and open-mindedness. They must be able to set aside their personal beliefs to treat all who come to their court with absolute equity.
Three of the four candidates for Montana Supreme Court have demonstrated that they have all of these qualities, and done so for many years. One has yet to prove herself.
Montana voters will see the names Mike McGrath and Jim Shea on their ballots, both running to retain their current seats and both running unopposed. Apart from their previous experience, their recent record on the court speaks for itself, and voters can consider it an easy choice to vote to retain McGrath as chief justice and Shea as justice No. 6.
However, Patricia O. Cotter is retiring as justice No. 3, leaving that seat open for either district judge Dirk Sandefur or professor Kristen Gustafson Juras. Voters should choose Sandefur for this important post, both for his broad understanding of the law and for his impeccable record of impartiality.
Sandefur has been elected three times as a district judge in Cascade County, serving the 8th Judicial District Court in Great Falls since 2002. He is a University of Montana Law School graduate who once worked as a police officer in Havre, then as a contract public defender and a deputy county attorney before becoming a district judge 14 years ago.
He leaves behind him a lengthy and respectable record of thorough legal understanding across a broad array of legal areas as well as a reputation for even-handedness.
Juras, whose deep understanding of the law and of certain legal areas in particular is evident, does not have a comparable record for voters to scrutinize. While judicial experience may not be a necessary quality for every successful Supreme Court justice, in her case, it is.
Kristen Juras is an award-winning law professor and attorney whose peers and students clearly think very highly of her. She has experience working for international law firms on contract, immigration and trade matters, and in private practice has delved into agriculture, commercial, estate and property law, among others. She continues to teach in these areas at the UM Law School.
There is no doubt Juras has ample legal knowledge and court experience. However, her judgment is suspect, and that is a critical concern for a judicial candidate.
Over the years Juras has joined groups and made statements that might rightly cause voters to question her commitment to impartiality, from her controversial opposition to a sex advice column in a student newspaper several years ago to a more recent email in which Juras, who describes herself as “a Christian and a patriot,” highlights her hope that she will get to help decide religious freedom cases in particular.
"What I covet is prayer. Please pray that during my campaign I would always act in a way that honors God, for His favor, for opportunities, for wisdom in my campaign strategies," Juras wrote in her email to a colleague.
Unfortunately, she left one important group off this list: Montanans.
A Montana Supreme Court justice is elected to a term of eight years. During that time, that justice will be one of seven members of the highest court in the state, ruling on hundreds of appeals concerning civil, criminal, water court and workers’ compensation cases. Juras makes a strong argument that her special expertise and experience would complement that of the other justices, and we agree with her.
We’d love to see Juras run for a seat on the bench of a lower court and begin building a record that will assure voters, and this editorial board, of her impartiality and her commitment to public service.
In the meantime, voters should elect Dirk Sandefur as Montana Supreme Court justice.