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One of the highest honors while serving as a U.S. senator when your party holds the White House is recommending nominees to the federal courts. It was one of my most important responsibilities.

I had the honor when Bill Clinton was president to recommend a Montanan to fill a vacancy for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. I wanted only the best.

I named six solid Montanans to my search committee. I asked them to give me three of their very best recommendations. I told them I didn't care if they gave me a Republican, Democrat, liberal, moderate or conservative. This isn’t to be partisan. I want only the best with the requisite judicial experience, temperament, intelligence and character. The best. It’s that important.

They did. They gave me outstanding Montana lawyers. So stellar that when I interviewed them it was difficult for me to chose. They all would have made us proud.

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I finally chose Judge Sid Thomas, our current chief judge of the 9th Circuit. Ironically, during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Chief Justice Rehnquist told me that he heard good things about then Judge Thomas. So did President Barack Obama who flew Judge Thomas back for an interview for a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. I dare say that if President Obama had looked at Judge Thomas earlier he would today be on the Supreme Court. Judge Thomas is that good.

Why is it so important to have only the best federal judges? An independent federal judiciary as provided for under Article III in our Constitution with confirmation power granted to the U.S. Senate is a principle reason why our country has so dramatically prospered since its creation. It's why we’ve led the world with our values. It’s why other countries without an independent judiciary haven’t done as well. It’s also necessary if we want to leave our country in as good or better shape than we’ve found it for our children and grandchildren. An independent wise arbiter, essentially free from political pressure from Congress, the president or the press is our best chance that decisions will be fair and give Americans during these partisan times more confidence that our American experiment actually works

I served our country for three years in China where there’s virtually no independent judiciary. In China the ruling Communist party essentially decides. Imagine, if you will, if our Constitution and federal laws were decided exclusively by an authoritarian Democratic or Republican Party without democratic elections.

The selection of our federal judges isn’t perfect. But it’s clearly the best in the world. That’s why it’s imperative that we continue to select only the best.

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Max S. Baucus, former U.S. ambassador to China and longtime Montana U.S. Senator, lives in Belgrade.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.