HELENA — While a federal court ruled that political parties may endorse nonpartisan judicial candidates in Montana, the two candidates for an open state Supreme Court seat said this week that 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 that 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.
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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.