HELENA - From working on some of the state's highest-profile legal cases to helping children and the needy get representation in court, the two candidates for an open Montana Supreme Court seat each boast a wide background in the law and their communities.
Nels Swandal, a state district judge in Livingston since 1994, was instrumental in starting a local program to represent children in abuse-and-neglect cases and spent years as legal adviser and advocate for National Guard soldiers who serve overseas.
Beth Baker, a Helena attorney and deputy attorney general for the state, has worked for years with programs that help provide low-cost or no-cost civil legal assistance for those who can't afford a lawyer.
Baker also helped represent the state on high-profile cases such as the prosecution of inmates charged with murdering other prisoners during the 1991 Montana State Prison riot and the state's unsuccessful legal challenge in the early 1990s to maintain its two congressional seats.
Baker, 48, and Swandal, 57, are running for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice William Leaphart, who is stepping down after 16 years on the seven-member court.
The race is nonpartisan, meaning the candidates have no party affiliation, and each has been emphasizing their respective background as a reason to support them.
Eight years ago, Swandal spearheaded a move to establish a local office of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), which trains and appoints volunteers to represent kids in abuse and neglect cases.
“He's just been very, very supportive of the program and made good, fair decisions, with the best interests of the children in mind,” said Gail McCormick, a longtime CASA volunteer in Livingston.
Swandal said there had been a program that appointed attorneys to represent kids in such cases, but he found that CASA volunteers could relate better to parents and children, with an eye toward keeping the family together.
“In my district, we have a very high percentage of reunification (of the family),” he said. “That's always a goal. That happens (here) almost all the time.”
The cases end up in court when the state has removed children from a home because of abuse or neglect, but families often are reunified if the parents agree to some sort of treatment program.
Swandal, a retired colonel in the Montana Army National Guard, also spent 14 years as a staff judge advocate for the Guard, one of several attorneys called in to advise on soldiers' legal rights when they were assigned overseas.
Tom Muri, a former full-time judge advocate for the Guard, said Swandal spent many hours not only advising soldiers on wills and legal authority for their affairs, but also protecting them in legal problems that arose in their absence, such as missed house payments or retaining their jobs upon returning.
“He was invaluable to those soldiers,” Muri said. “He saw both sides of things. He could very easily make other judges aware of the plight of the soldier being yanked out of their surroundings.”
Swandal also has emphasized his background as a district judge. Many fellow district judges are supporting him, including Judge Ed McLean of Missoula.
McLean said he got to know Swandal when the two worked as county attorneys, and that Swandal came to Missoula after he was elected county attorney and later judge, to confer with McLean about how things operated in the Missoula County attorney's office and McLean's office as judge.
“He's always been real diligent about whatever position he has held,” McLean said.
Baker has been involved for 20 years in a variety of groups that have pushed to expand legal representation for the poor in civil cases.
She has advised and assisted the Montana Legal Services Association, whose attorneys represent the needy; she pushed for funding of a legal “self-help” program statewide; she's worked on local committees that encourage lawyers to provide free legal help to the poor; she routinely does such free legal work herself, carrying one case after another.
“As far as being committed to the core ideal of equal access to justice, Beth just keeps working at it decade after decade, to an extent that is matched by very, very few,” said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Karla Gray, who worked with Baker on these issues beginning in the late 1980s.
Baker said her involvement stems from her hope that the legal system can “fulfill our promise of justice for all,” and that “it just grew once I got involved and realized the enormity of the need.”
Baker has been an attorney with the Helena firm of Hughes, Kellner, Sullivan and Alke since 2000, a firm that focuses mostly on civil defense work, representing corporations and government agencies. Baker has often defended government agencies that have been sued, on employment and other issues.
Before joining the firm, she spent 11 years with the state Justice Department, working under attorney generals Marc Racicot, a Republican, and Joe Mazurek, a Democrat.
In early 1992, she was assigned to help Assistant Attorney General John Connor prosecute 14 inmates charged in connection with the murder of five fellow prisoners during the September 1991 riot at the State Prison's Maximum Security Unit.
Nine of the cases went to trial, ending in convictions or guilty pleas during the trial, and the other five ended with guilty pleas.
Connor said he never imagined how much work the cases would be, but that with the help of Baker and others, they were wrapped up in a year's time.
Baker did all of the pretrial briefing and hearings, responding to multiple legal challenges by the defendants, he said.
“She must have written well over 100 briefs on a series of cases,” said Connor, who has been helping Baker campaign for the Supreme Court post. “Her work was just outstanding. ... She is one of the smartest people I know, and has the ability to realize what the issues are and focus on what's important.
“I've always said since I first worked with her that she ought to be on the Supreme Court.”