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State District Judge Nels Swandal, who’s running for an open seat on the Montana Supreme Court, sent some clear signals Saturday to Republicans that he is the more conservative candidate in the race, saying he didn’t have or want the endorsement of a prominent labor or conservation group.

Swandal, speaking at a forum at the Republican Party Platform Convention in Billings, said some of the questions posed by the Montana AFL-CIO to candidates “are among the most un-American ideas I’ve ever seen,” and that he wouldn’t seek endorsement of the Montana Conservation Voters “because of their assault on private property.”

Helena attorney Beth Baker, his opponent, who’s been endorsed by both groups, told the 100 people at the forum that it’s more important to evaluate judicial candidates based on the work they’ve done as a lawyer.

Baker said that during her 25-year career, she has represented all types of clients, from businesses suing the government to poor people who don’t understand their rights under the law. That experience has taught her how to treat all parties fairly, she said — and that’s what Montanans want in a judge. “My experience has been shaped by the law, not by politics or agendas or by ideology,” she said. “Whether you’re a business owner, a teacher, a firefighter or a sportsman, your interests are best-served by electing a judge who will study the law and make decisions based on the law and the facts.”

Baker and Swandal are running for the seat of retiring Justice William Leaphart — the only open seat on Montana’s seven-person Supreme Court.

Their race is one of only two statewide contested elections this year in Montana.

The forum Saturday at the Republican Party Platform Convention was one of the first joint appearances by the two Supreme Court candidates during the general election campaign. Both candidates said the race is an important one, yet that the nonpartisan contest often doesn’t get much attention. People rarely know much about the candidates or the court, they said.

Swandal, of Livingston, emphasized that if he wins, he’d be the only Supreme Court justice with the experience of being a district judge, a post he has held in Park and Sweet Grass counties since 1995. He noted that he has been endorsed by 24 district judges. He also worked as a private attorney and county attorney before becoming a judge. “I know what the Supreme Court does; I’ve been there,” he said. “Anything the Supreme Court has heard, I’ve heard. I can step right in.

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“There is no judge on the Supreme Court. Nobody’s been in the trenches. Sometimes I wonder if the justices have ever even read the statutes.”

Baker, who’s worked as a private attorney and as a deputy attorney general under two state attorneys general, said she doesn’t think working as a judge is “in the trenches.” Rather, it’s representing all types of clients before the court, she said.

She also suggested that Swandal has an agenda of “not reversing district judges” on their decisions — an agenda she said a Supreme Court justice shouldn’t have.

“The Supreme Court is where you go if you think the trial judge has made a mistake,” Baker said. “It’s not the job of the Supreme Court to protect the district judge. It’s the job of the Supreme Court to protect your rights.”

Swandal said he would try to follow precedent — unless it’s the wrong decision — and that he wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and rule against legislative actions or other actions that violate individual rights, as spelled out in the state constitution. Swandal also said he thought President Barack Obama’s latest nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, would be “an absolute disaster,” and that she “doesn’t even believe in the Constitution.”

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