Jonathan Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — A former statewide elected official is joining the race for the top spot on Montana’s Supreme Court.

John Morrison, an attorney from Helena, announced this week that he’s running for Supreme Court chief justice.

“Our courts have been under attack, and I want to make sure that our courts remain fair and impartial and open for all Montanans,” Morrison told MTN. “I think I can do that as chief justice.”

Morrison was twice elected Montana’s state auditor, as a Democrat. He served in the office from 2001 to 2009, regulating the insurance and securities industries in the state. He is now a partner with the law firm Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson, & Deola.

Morrison says he has the strongest legal and leadership experience to take on this position, including arguing dozens of cases before the court. He says he has considered pursuing a judgeship for a long time, but that he was waiting for when it was the right time for his firm and his clients. He also said he saw now as the right moment because he wanted to respond to what he saw as a pattern of political attacks on the integrity of Montana’s judiciary.

“Right now, I feel that I need to stand up and be a part of this discussion and be a part of making sure that Montanans are aware of how important the courts are to their constitutional rights,” he said.

The Montana Supreme Court’s chief justice is elected separately from other justices, and the position comes with additional responsibilities for administering the Court and supervising other parts of the state’s judicial branch. The seat will be open in the 2024 election, as incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath is not running for another term.

At the end of his time as auditor, Morrison led the campaign for Initiative 155, a ballot measure that established the Healthy Montana Kids children’s health insurance plan. He later helped found the Montana Health Co-Op, now the Mountain Health Co-Op, established after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which provides health insurance through the individual market.

In 2006, Morrison ran in the Democratic primary for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat. He finished second to then-state Senate President and now U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

During the 2006 campaign, Morrison faced questions over reports that he had brought in an independent investigator to handle a securities case that involved the fiancé of a woman Morrison had an affair with before become auditor. According to former MTN chief political reporter Mike Dennison in his book “Inside Montana Politics,” most people who examined the case concluded Morrison handled the situation properly and did not attempt to influence the investigation.

Morrison’s father, Frank Morrison Jr., served as a Montana Supreme Court justice from 1981 to 1987. His grandfather, Frank Morrison Sr., was governor of Nebraska from 1961 to 1967.

The other declared candidate for the chief justice position so far is Jerry Lynch, a former federal magistrate judge from Missoula – but others may still get into the race.

One associate justice position is also open next year, as Justice Dirk Sandefur will not be seeking reelection. State district judges Dan Wilson and Katherine Bidegaray have announced plans to run for that seat.