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A measure under consideration by the state Legislature would eliminate the Judicial Nominating Commission and authorize the governor to directly appoint judges to fill district court and Supreme Court vacancies.

Bad idea. And lawmakers should kill this proposal in short order.

The Montana Constitution provides for judges to be elected by the voters. But when a district court judge or Supreme Court justice retires in the middle of his or her term, the seven-member Judicial Nominating Commission — which includes a judge and two lawyers appointed by the Supreme Court and four members appointed by the governor — screens applicants through a public interview process. The commission then recommends three to five candidates for the governor to choose from to fill the vacancy. Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the commission and hand sole authority for appointing judges to the governor.

The process as it stands today provides a layer of transparency and accountability that would be lost by eliminating the commission. The commission also ensures the replacement is qualified and has the credentials for the job. And eliminating it would invite politics to taint the process in ways that would be highly detrimental.

Selecting judges is problematic to begin with. Judges are expected to be unbiased and nonpartisan, and candidates steer clear of specific political views when campaigning. That leaves voters with little to work with when judging candidates. And when a judge retires in the middle of his or her term, whoever is appointed to fill the vacancy enjoys the advantage of incumbency when they run for the seat in the next election. So the position can turn into a lifetime appointment.

But as imperfect as all this may be, it’s better and more accountable than simply handing the authority to a single politician who, without question, would inject his or her ideology into the process much more than is the case today.

And Republican lawmakers may like the idea in the GOP-controlled House and Senate now. But they are reminded there will be a Democratic governor in the future, and they won’t like this appointment authority when that happens.

All lawmakers are urged to vote no on SB 140.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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