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Montana GOP Senator Wants to Change Justice Qualifications
Proposal would require approval from 100 of 150 lawmakers
HELENA – A Republican state senator launched a long-shot bid Thursday for a constitutional amendment that would require prior judicial experience for Montana Supreme Court justices.

The proposal would require approval from 100 of 150 lawmakers before it could be sent to the voters, a tough hurdle to clear even if all 90 Republicans in the Legislature back it.

But Fred Thomas, of Stevensville, said he thinks the measure has a "50-50" chance.

As written, the measure would require candidates to have experience as a District Court judge. But Thomas said he may expand the requirement to allow any judge or prosecutor, amid criticism the applicant pool would otherwise be too small.

Currently, candidates for the high court are required to be admitted to practice law in the state.

Thomas told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he thinks the current system helps create a partisan court by allowing any attorney to run. He said he thinks district court judges are less partisan.

He cited the Montana State Supreme Court's decision to buck the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United that protected corporate political spending under freedom of speech. Montana's high court ruled that the state's century-old ban on some corporate politicking could remain in place — a decision later overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thomas said he believes the Montana court's decision was contrary to the U.S. Constitution, and politically motivated.

"My goal in the long run is to have better decisions for the state of Montana and to have a judiciary and a Supreme Court system that is above reproach and above politics," Thomas said.

Thomas said his intent was not to give Republicans a better chance at controlling the court.

But critics argued the proposal would not fix the perceived problem. They pointed out that the other offices needed for qualification, such as district court judgeships, often are riddled with accusations of partisanship.

The opponents, including legal groups, said voters are best served by the current system that lets them evaluate the experience of attorneys who run for the high court.

A losing candidate this past election cycle for the Montana Supreme Court argued the measure is not necessary.

Missoula public defender Ed Sheehy, who did not have the experience that would have been required under Thomas' bill, noted that the voters on their own decided to choose a candidate, Laurie McKinnon, who is a district judge.

"The people of this state decided my opponent was more qualified than me," Sheehy said.
 
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