Despite last year’s defeat of merit selection in Nevada, several states are actively considering putting it on their ballots. The first to a vote this year was in Montana, where SB 175 was considered by that state’s Senate Judiciary Committee over the last several weeks. In a January 27 hearing (audio here, minutes here) proponents noted the influx of money and partisan politics in judicial races and noted the need for fair and impartial courts. Some committee members, however, expressed concern that by having a partisan-elected governor select from a commission created by a partisan-elected legislature, politics would seep back in. One senator recommended having the supreme court chose.
Several senators expressed concern over the nominating commission composition. SB 175 provides only that the commissioners “shall be state residents and may not hold office in any political party. A majority of the commissioners shall be lay members who are neither attorneys nor elected officeholders.” Proponents argued that details of commission composition and selection should be left out of the constitition, citing a Montana tradition of not “legislating in the constitution.”
When a committee vote was finally held on February 4 (audio here) several committee members that voted against stated their worries about taking away the vote of Montana residents, that no Native American would ever be able to become a judge, and that the politics of judicial selection would simply go behind closed doors. All committee members present, however, did express their concerns over over-politicization of judicial election/selection, with some openly calling for a discussion on public financing. When brought to a vote, the bill died on a 6-6 tie with all five Democrats, plus the Republican committee chair voting No. However, several of the Yes votes were expressed with the caveat that they were voting to advance the bill to the floor and/or a fuller debate and might very well vote against the final bill.