Montana GOP lines up behind Jim Brown for Supreme Court

State Republican Party joins Gianforte, Knudsen, Daines in endorsing Brown

By: - March 30, 2022 3:51 pm

The seven seats and court of the Montana Supreme Court (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

The Montana Republican Party executive board voted this week to endorse current Public Service Commission President Jim Brown in the three-way primary for the second seat on the Montana Supreme Court, the state GOP announced Wednesday.

Brown, the last candidate to enter the race, is along with First Judicial District Court Judge Mike McMahon vying for the seat currently occupied by incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson. Brown has served on the all-GOP commission since January of 2021.

Jim Brown, president of the Public Service Commission, is running for the Montana Supreme Court. (Provided by the PSC for the Daily Montanan.)

Judicial elections — or more accurately, judicial candidates — are theoretically nonpartisan. But that hasn’t stopped outside political forces from weighing in on the contests in years past, and this judicial election cycle is already looking to be fiercely political, with a legislative session marked by conflict between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary in the rearview mirror and several court challenges to bills passed in 2021 already before the high court.

Brown, who has a track record as an attorney representing conservative interests including the Montana GOP, received a slate of endorsements from three of Montana’s top Republicans shortly after he announced: Gov. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Attorney General Austin Knudsen. The state GOP endorsement is the latest sign that the state’s dominant political party has picked their preferred candidate for the Supreme Court bench.

Republicans have regularly attacked the Supreme Court as a body shaped by Democratic appointments to the bench and an impediment to GOP legislative ambitions, something that manifested in a series of judiciary reforms the Legislature sought to pass last year and a protracted legal fight over court lobbying and records retention practices. In a statement Wednesday, Montana Republican Party Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt said the court “has become politicized as the last lever of power for the Democratic party in Montana, and the last thing Montanans want is six more years of another liberal activist judge.

“Commissioner Brown will uphold the Constitution, stand for law and order, and never legislate from the bench,” Kaltschmidt added. “Electing Jim Brown, a true constitutional conservative to the Montana Supreme Court, will begin to restore integrity and confidence in Montana’s Judicial system.”

Gustafson has served on the Supreme Court since 2017. McMahon, who has described himself as a conservative jurist and a strict constructionist, beat out a Democratic-appointed judge for a seat in the First District in 2016. However, while both judges have tried to distance themselves from the fray of the session and its fallout, Republicans have attacked the pair as liberals — Gustafson for being “weak on crime” and McMahon for ruling against a legislative subpoena and striking down an element of the so-called “campus carry” bill that passed last year.

Under the most recent Montana Code of Judicial Conduct, political parties can endorse judges, but judges can’t “seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization” or “publicly identify himself or herself as a candidate of a political organization.”

Brown, in his announcement, said he’s “running to preserve our rule of law, follow the Constitution, bring accountability back to the judicial branch, and to protect our Montana way of life.”

In addition to his duties on the PSC, Brown is the current executive director of the Montana Funeral Directors Association.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.