Montana: bill calls for creation of “Supreme Court Candidate Public Forum Program” to help inform voters

A plan to expand public information about Montana Supreme Court races has been filed in that state’s House.

First, some background.

Montana uses a unique election system for their Supreme Court.

  • For initial terms, justices run for a particular seat (e.g. Associate Justice #2, Chief Justice) in a non-partisan race.
  • For additional terms, if a justice runs in a contest race, it is again non-partisan. If the justice runs unopposed, the justice must still go before voters, but in a yes/no retention election. So, for example, in 2016 Chief Justice Mike McGrath ran unopposed, so had to go up for a retention vote (he won with an 82% yes vote).

Under HB 636 as filed the Montana Secretary of State would administer the Supreme Court Candidate Public Forum Program and invite all candidates to participate. The program is designed to provide increased public access to information about candidates for justice and chief justice of the Montana supreme court.

The Program would pay for candidates to travel to forums across the state and pay for the space needed to host, publicize, and broadcast the events. The Secretary of State would “arrange forums in a manner that emphasizes and respects the nonpartisan nature of the supreme court while providing electors important information about candidates.”

Funds for the Program would come from 2 sources

  • An increase in filing fees in appellate and civil cases
  • Voluntary income tax refund contributions up to $5 (individual) or $10 (joint) from state income tax forms. Those who owe taxes could contribute $1.

HB 636 has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.