HELENA – While a federal court says political parties can now endorse nonpartisan judicial candidates in Montana, the two candidates for an open state Supreme Court seat said this week they won’t accept the endorsements – because a state judicial ethics code forbids it.
Ed Sheehy, a Missoula attorney running for the Supreme Court, also said Wednesday if a political-party endorsement is made, the judicial candidate has an obligation to tell the endorser to withdraw it.
“We can’t accept or use (the endorsement),” he said. “If you don’t tell (the endorser) to stop, you’ve violated part of the rule, because you’ve accepted it.”
Sheehy is running against District Judge Laurie McKinnon of Choteau for the state Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice James Nelson, who is retiring.
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Montana’s law forbidding political parties from endorsing nonpartisan judicial candidates is unconstitutional.
That ruling clears the way for political parties to endorse judicial candidates, who, in Montana, are nonpartisan, which means they are not associated with a political party.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, which wants to endorse judicial candidates and argued that its free-speech rights are being violated by the ban. The appeals court agreed.
Montana Justice Department officials have said they expect to appeal the ruling – but, for now, the ban is lifted and party groups can endorse judicial candidates in Montana.
The Sanders County group has said it wants to make an endorsement in the Sheehy-McKinnon race, as well as the race between District Judge Kim Christopher of Polson and her challenger, Polson attorney Thomas Kragh, in state Judicial District 20.
However, the group has yet to make public its endorsements. Sanders County Republican Central Committee chair Katy French could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Sheehy noted that the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct, adopted by the Montana Supreme Court in 2009, says judicial candidates in Montana cannot “seek, accept or use endorsements from a political organization,” and defines political organization as a political party or any group sponsored by or affiliated with a political party.
McKinnon acknowledged the code as well on Thursday, and said she certainly intends to follow its rules on not accepting endorsements. However, she said she wasn’t sure how she’d react if a political organization endorses her.
“I’ll have to deal with that as it unfolds,” she said. “I don’t know how I would disavow it, but I can’t accept it.”
“It’s very important that judges are neutral and impartial,” she continued. “I’ve never given to a political organization, and I don’t intend to allow that to occur in the future.”
Sheehy said he may contact the Republican and Democratic state parties and tell them they should refrain from endorsing him, and that he won’t accept any such endorsement.