Ethics complaint filed against Supreme Court candidate, but Commissioner has yet to accept

By: - June 2, 2022 6:45 pm

A photo of Lewis and Clark County District Judge Michael McMahon talking about his candidacy for Supreme Court justice (Photo by Arren Kimbel-Sannit of the Daily Montanan).

A Bozeman lawyer is alleging Judge Michael McMahon used state facilities “namely, his court,” as a “campaign prop” in violation of Montana’s code of ethics, according to a complaint filed Thursday with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

The Commissioner of Political Practices may accept or reject a complaint for filing according to its ethics procedures. The commissioner could not be reached Thursday afternoon via voicemail about the timeline for accepting or rejecting a complaint.

The ethics procedures note the Commissioner of Political Practices considers “whether the lodged complaint concerns a person or activity under COPP jurisdiction.”

In a brief email, McMahon said he would respond as needed to the Commissioner of Political Practices: At this juncture, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Monforton, and will fully cooperate with the Montana Political Practices Commissioner if a request is made under controlling Montana law.”

McMahon is a Lewis and Clark District Court judge. He is running for justice of the Montana Supreme Court against incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and lawyer and Montana Public Service Commission President and lawyer James Brown. 

In the complaint, Monforton alleged McMahon conducted a “press conference” in his courtroom on March 2 “in which he proclaimed that he is running for the Montana Supreme Court to do ‘the right thing’ from the bench.” The complaint notes a story and photo in the Helena Independent Record as evidence.

The Daily Montanan sent one of the two reporters who interviewed McMahon. A photographer also was present.

The story “leaves no doubt” the judge was speaking in support of his candidacy, the complaint said. It also said the alleged violation of MCA 2-2-121 by McMahon is “even more egregious” than an earlier ethics violation by former Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

In 2020, the Commissioner of Political Practices found Cooney had violated the code of ethics and fined him $1,000 for “improper use of facilities.” Cooney had participated in a conference call from his office in the Capitol with the Democratic Governors Association “supporting his candidacy for public office,” a call the Thursday complaint described as “an ostensibly private conversation.”

“Judge McMahon, by contrast, used his courtroom as a visual campaign prop to emphasize that he currently holds judicial office and is therefore a suitable candidate for another judicial office,” the complaint said.

Monforton signed the complaint Thursday, just two days before the noon June 6 deadline for Montanans to register to vote for the June 7 primary. But Monforton said he was not waiting until right before the primary — and prior to any acceptance or rejection of his complaint or final determination by the commissioner — to make the allegation.

Although the first story and photo he listed as evidence ran on March 2, Monforton said he only saw the photo on May 25, when the Helena IR republished it with a different story involving the judge. He said he would have filed his complaint earlier had he seen it because he believes the commissioner will find in his favor.

“And voters would have received earlier notice as to how Judge McMahon has debased the solemnity of his courtroom by staging a campaign event in it,” Monforton said.

In the complaint, he argues it is clear McMahon is a “public officer” for purposes of the ethics code: “Although the definitions for ‘public officer’ and ‘state officer’ do not expressly mention judges, they contain the word ‘includes,’” therefore the list of terms is not exhaustive.

“Judge McMahon declared during his campaign press conference that he intended to provide guidance as a Supreme Court justice to the state’s district court judges ‘so we’re all playing on the same field. He should begin by playing on the same ethics field as all other Montana candidates for public office.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”