HELENA - Montanans will vote in two Montana Supreme Court races this year.
However, the race between incumbent Justice Jim Rice and Billings attorney Bill D'Alton has drawn far less money than the race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and Montana Public Service Commission President Jim Brown.
In the last campaign fundraising period, Rice raised a little more than $4,000. His challenger, D'Alton, raised zero.
In contrast, Gustafson raised a little more than $121,000 in the last fundraising period. Brown raised a little more than $100,000. Those numbers also don't include the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the race by special interest groups.
The differences between the two races are apparent in both the ad buys and rhetoric of the four campaigns.
Despite Rice’s outspoke criticism of some Republican state leaders, Montana’s first lady, Susan Gianforte, spread her support for Rice and hosted a dinner and named Rice and Brown as her preferred candidates in the two court races.
Whereas, conservative groups have targeted Gustafson with attacks of liberal bias and liberal obstructionism of the GOP’s legislative agenda.
“It’s harder to make that case against Rice, who is a former Republican legislator,” said Lee Banville, a Montana political analyst and dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism. “Versus Gustafson, who was appointed by a Democratic governor.”
Rice doesn’t appear to be worried about hurting his chance at reelection.
During the 50th anniversary celebration of Montana’s Constitutional Convention, Rice criticized both Republican lawmakers and Republican Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen for their actions and rhetoric during the 2021 Legislative Session.
Rice is running for his third eight-year term on the court. He was appointed in 2001 by then-Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican. If re-elected, Rice could serve on the court until 2030.
For voters considering whether to send him back to the bench, Rice said his experience should give them the confidence to check the box next to his name.
“I’ve established a reputation of providing a fair and impartial application of principle to resolve cases,” Rice told MTN News. “To have not permitted partisan politics or inappropriate influence to enter into my work.”
Rice filed for reelection on Jan. 6 of this year. At the time, Rice said he was motivated by the riots the previous year at the U.S. Capitol as well as by the rhetoric of state Republican lawmakers and the Attorney General, who released a statement in April 2021 referencing a “pattern of corruption” at the Montana Supreme Court.
When he took the bench in 2001, Rice said he’d never imagined a statewide public official would threaten to not obey a court order.
Some members of the public may believe the Montana Supreme Court decides cases based on personal preference, Rice said.
But justices often reach a conclusion in a case that “we’re not happy with as a matter of policy or as a matter of preference,” Rice said.
“But that’s not our choice,” Rice said. “That’s not the basis of our decision. The legislature is free to vote depending on their preferences and what outcome they would like to see. Justices don’t have that option.”
Rice’s opponent, Billings attorney Bill D’Alton, said one way to combat some of this belief would be to open Montana Supreme Court deliberations to the public.
The court allows the public to attend oral arguments before the court, but the conversations between justices regarding their final ruling are not a matter of public record.
“The public wants to know how they’re deciding these things,” D’Alton said. “Why not open up the chambers to the internal debate so the public can see those things?”
D’Alton started practicing law in Montana more than 27 years ago and his cases have appeared before the Montana Supreme Court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While D’Alton is pushing for more transparency from the court, he and Rice agree on the need for transparency and independence among candidates.
While knocking on doors, D’Alton said he often gets asked whether he is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative.
“What I have to say to people is, first of all, this is a nonpartisan election,” D’Alton said. “…When you say you’ve got to be independent in this, they’re like ‘Oh, yeah right.’”
If elected, D’Alton said he promised to serve just one term to focus on improving the judicial system and rendering unbiased decisions.
Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify Susan Gianforte voiced support for Justice Jim Rice, but the fundraising dinner was not in coordination with any campaign.