Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — Next year, Montanans are going to select two members of the state Supreme Court – and it appears both of them will be new to the court.

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur both told the Montana Free Press last month that they are not planning to run for reelection in 2024.

Last year, the Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and challenger James Brown became one of the most high-profile and expensive elections in the state. Now, with two open seats available, there could again be a lot of attention on the judicial races.

One candidate has already filed campaign finance paperwork for the chief justice position: Jeremiah “Jerry” Lynch, a former federal magistrate judge for the District of Montana, working out of Missoula. Lynch, a Butte native, served as a law clerk for federal judge and former Montana chief justice Paul Hatfield. He then spent ten years in private practice before being appointed to the magistrate judge position in 2006.

A magistrate judge is tasked with helping federal district courts handle their caseload, and they have authority to do much of the same work district judges do. Unlike district judges, they have eight-year terms instead of lifetime appointments, and instead of being appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, they are vetted by a merit selection panel and appointed by the judges in their district.

The chief justice is elected separately from other justices, and the position comes with additional responsibilities for administering the Supreme Court and supervising other parts of the state’s judicial branch. Lynch said he has the experience to handle that work and the skills to build consensus on the court.

Lynch also praised the work McGrath and the other justices have done, saying they’ve been under “unwarranted political attack.”

“The judiciary is an independent branch of government, coequal under our Constitution,” he said. “And so, in my view, it's not political, it's just the judiciary standing up and abiding by the Constitution to defend the independence of that entity.”

Two state district court judges have launched campaigns for the associate justice position. The first is Dan Wilson, one of five judges of the 11th Judicial District, which covers Flathead County. He was elected to the position in 2016 and reelected in 2022.

Wilson, who was born in Billings, previously worked as a deputy county attorney in Cascade, Blaine and Flathead Counties. He worked for about a decade in private practice, doing a variety of work – including family law and criminal defense. In 2010, he was elected as a justice of the peace for Flathead County. He says his experience in many different courts and types of law would be an asset as a justice.

Wilson said he wants to stress an approach to cases that’s based on the plain language of the law.

“Common sense not only means that we should look at the law and interpret it without regard to what a special interest group might prefer that we find for a meaning or even what our personal preferences might be – but merely to say what is there, and not to seek to put what is not there,” he said.

The second candidate is Katherine Bidegaray, from Sidney. She has spent more than 20 years as one of two judges for the 7th Judicial District, which covers Richland, Dawson, McCone, Prairie and Wibaux Counties in Eastern Montana.

Bidegaray grew up on a farm and ranch near Sidney. She worked several years in Helena for the State Auditor’s office before moving back to Eastern Montana. There, she says she worked on criminal cases as both a prosecutor and defender, on oil and gas law, on family law and on a variety of other cases. She is now in her fourth term as a district judge.

Bidegaray says the Supreme Court has an important role in protecting Montanans’ rights, and that her background has shown her the importance of provisions like the right to privacy and right to a clean and healthful environment.

“I feel lucky to live in a state that has adopted protections in its constitution for very important rights,” she said. “I think that I have demonstrated in my 21 years as a district court judge that I will look at issues fairly and impartially, that I have done my work for all Montanans.”

Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, but some campaigns in recent years have drawn competition as heated as any other statewide election.

It’s likely these candidates won’t be the last to jump into the 2024 races. The last time Montana had a Supreme Court election with no incumbent running was 2016, when Sandefur was first elected. Three candidates filed for that open seat – and this time, there will be two of them.

The first campaign mailers in the 2024 races have already gone out. An ad from the group Montanans for Fair Judiciary criticizing Lynch as a “liberal trial lawyer” appeared in Montanans’ mailboxes last month.

Lynch said he was prepared for what comes in the campaign.

“I think that my motivation in protecting and defending the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and protecting what I think is the most thoughtful state constitution in the United States, gives me the motivation that I'm prepared to do what it takes,” he said. “I'm not going to be dissuaded by attack ads, and I will proudly stand on my record.”

Wilson said he also feels ready for a potentially heated race, but told MTN, “if it does become heated, I can tell you now it won't be by my effort.”

“I plan to run this race in a way that I'd like to see and hope to see judicial races run in the future, which is on a fair and nonpartisan basis in the best traditions of our state,” he said.

Bidegaray said she was expecting it could be another contentious campaign.

“I recognize the reality of what is probably to come based upon what has happened in the most recent elections,” she said. “I just hope that all Montanans recognize how extremely important this race is to the preservation of the rights for all of Montanans, not just a select few. It's critical. And I'm prepared and have developed the backbone and the thick skin to be able to move forward for the benefit of all Montanans.”

Lynch and Wilson filed their first quarterly campaign fundraising reports with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices this week. Lynch raised just over $55,000 since the start of June. Wilson reported almost $13,000 after launching his campaign June 13, including a $10,000 loan of his own money.

Bidegaray officially launched her campaign after the start of July, so her first fundraising numbers won’t be due until October.