Six of the seven Montana Supreme Court justices have filed a friends-of-the-court brief asking a federal judge to uphold a 2008 state judicial rule that prohibits judicial candidates from seeking or accepting partisan endorsements. Former Justice William Leaphart of Helena filed the brief on behalf of Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Justices Jim Rice, Michael Wheat, Patricia Cotter, Beth Baker and James Jeremiah Shea. Justice Laurie McKinnon didn’t join in the effort. Leaphart was responding to a federal lawsuit filed by Mark French, a justice of the peace candidate in Sanders County and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. House in 2010. Last month, French sued to challenge a rule in the state Montana Code of Judicial Conduct to strike down the rule that prohibits candidates for judicial offices from seeking or accepting partisan endorsements.
French said he intends to seek the endorsement of the Sander County Republican Central Committee, which is chaired by his wife, Kathleen French. He sought a preliminary injunction to block the rule from being enforced.
French told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle he is running for the sole justice of the peace seat in Sanders County after his unsuccessful attempt to challenge a $20 citation he received for not wearing a seatbelt. French is taking on the incumbent justice of the peace who presided over a trial in which he was found guilty.
The Montana Code of Judicial Conduct rule that French is challenging says that a Montana judicial candidate may not “seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization, or partisan or independent non-judicial officeholder or candidate.”