Last year, more than 800 new cases were filed before the Montana Supreme Court. Most were direct appeals from District Courts — criminal, civil and family law cases.
Montana voters must decide whether Kristen Juras or Dirk Sandefur is best qualified to handle that workload. Juras and Sandefur are running in the nonpartisan election to fill the seat now occupied by Justice Patricia Cotter, who is retiring. The election winner will join six other justices on the court for an eight-year term.
Both Juras and Sandefur strike us as smart, personable Montana natives, both live in Great Falls. She is the daughter of a longtime ranching family. After moving out of state and earning a law degree, Juras returned to Montana to raise her family. She has been in private practice and taught at the University of Montana Law School.
Sandefur is the son of mechanic and stay-at-home mom. He earned a degree in computer science before working as a Havre police officer, then worked his way through the UM Law school while raising a family.
Sandefur joined the Cascade County attorney’s office where he became chief civil deputy attorney. Cascade County voters have elected him three times as their district judge, a job he has held for 14 years in the state’s third-busiest judicial district. Like his fellow judges, Sandefur is a workhorse in a court where 5,600 new cases were filed last year. According to an independent judicial workload study each of the Cascade County judges last year carried double the workload that should be expected of a full-time judge.
Juras has been outspoken in declaring that Montanans’ right to stream access is a nonissue. In a guest opinion printed in July, she wrote: "So don’t be fooled by those who are yelling wolf that the public’s right to use waterways for recreation is somehow in jeopardy — that’s a distraction from the real issues surrounding the upcoming elections for the Montana Supreme Court.”
But lawsuits continue on public access issues. It’s disingenuous to argue that this is “absolutely settled law” as Juras said when she talked with editorial board members earlier this month in Billings. Disputes about how stream access law is applied in particular cases continue to be litigated.
When a judge who’s been on the bench for as many years as Sandefur is challenged in a politicized race, opponents often pick a few of the thousands of cases the judge decided, and selectively describe them to claim that judge is “soft on crime.” We are seeing such claims against Sandefur in negative ads from a political committee funded with out-of-state money. However, Cascade County Attorney John Parker (the prosecutor whose office most often appears before Sandefur) has praised the judge for imposing tough, fair sentences on criminals.
Only one of the present seven justices, Laurie McKinnon, has experience as a District Court judge. Considering that most of the Supreme Court’s work is deciding appeals from District Court, having the perspective of district judges is important. That’s one of the reasons why The Gazette editorial board endorsed McKinnon four years ago, and it’s a factor in why we support Sandefur.
Rather than the narrower experience on Juras’ resume, we recommend that voters tap the broader expertise Sandefur offers. We expect that Montana Supreme Court justices will set aside their personal views and apply the law consistently and fairly. We expect the state’s sole appellate court to do a lot of work in a timely fashion. Sandefur has already proven his ability to fulfill all those requirements.