A federal judge Tuesday refused to block Montana’s law forbidding political parties from endorsing a nonpartisan judicial candidate, saying their involvement could transform judicial contests into partisan races. U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena said Montana clearly has an interest in maintaining a fair, impartial judiciary – and that keeping political parties out of judicial elections might be allowed to achieve that goal. “If … political parties were permitted to endorse nonpartisan judicial candidates, then the elections might be nonpartisan only in form,” he wrote. “Nonpartisan elections, perhaps, can truly be nonpartisan only if political parties are prohibited from endorsing candidates.” The Sanders County Republican Central Committee has asked to strike down the endorsement ban, saying it’s an infringement on the committee’s free speech. The GOP group wants to endorse candidates in judicial races, saying it would like to promote judges who “share its ideological views.” In Montana, judges run for their positions, but are nonpartisan, meaning they run with no party affiliation.
Lovell’s order isn’t the final word on the case, however. He simply declined to remove the ban until a September trial on the issue – but he did say it’s unlikely the GOP group’s lawsuit will succeed. Matthew Monforton, the Bozeman attorney representing the GOP group, said Tuesday his clients “respectfully disagree” with the judge’s order and are considering an appeal. The ruling comes the day after Montana lost a major campaign-law case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the state’s 100-year-old ban on corporate spending to influence state elections.
On the judicial endorsement case, Lovell said late last month in court he thought the Sanders County Republican Central Committee might have a “sound and authoritative basis for their position.” But in Tuesday’s order, he concluded it may not be possible to have nonpartisan judicial elections if political parties are allowed to endorse the candidates.