The two candidates running for the only contested seat on the Montana Supreme Court this year sparred repeatedly during a public forum Thursday over questions of experience and ideological bias.
Dirk Sandefur, who was a police officer in Havre for three years and a deputy county attorney for eight years before becoming a Cascade County district judge in 2002, said “there is no substitute for experience.”
His opponent, University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras, said her 34 years in the private sector and her work on behalf of small businesses, farmers and ranchers is exactly the kind of experience the state’s highest court needs.
The forum, sponsored by the Billings League of Women Voters, attracted about 60 people to the Elks Club, 934 Lewis Ave., Thursday afternoon. Each candidate had 10 minutes to make introductory remarks, followed by 40 minutes of answering questions from the crowd.
The candidates also clashed over the issue of injecting religion and ideology into their work on the court. In response to a question, Sandefur said he did speak at a gay pride rally in Great Falls but did not state his position on specific subjects like same-sex marriage.
“My personal views on the subject have no bearing whatsoever on how I decide cases,” he said.
Juras countered by accusing Sandefur of saying at the rally that people who believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman are “haters and bigots.”
Sandefur called that “a bold-faced lie,” then repeated the phrase. What he told people at the rally, he said, is that Juras believes haters and bigots have a right, on the grounds of religious freedom, to discriminate against certain people.
He was equally blunt on the issue of stream access, saying of Juras’ attempts to characterize her position, “She’s trying to sell you a bill of goods.”
Juras said earlier that the courts have no business usurping the powers of the legislature. When asked for examples of when the courts have established new constitutional rights, she mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court ruling essentially legalizing same-sex marriage and the Montana Supreme Court ruling in 1984 that “significantly” changed stream-access laws.
Landowners used to have property rights to small streams that flowed through their land, she said, until the 1984 ruling that allowed people to use streams between the high-water marks, as long as the users were there via a public access. At any rate, she said, the Montana Legislature later passed laws codifying and clarifying those access rights.
Sandefur said Juras was trying to make it sound as though streambed access was a matter of settled law, so that her views on the issue didn’t matter. But in her writings, he said, she once referred to the 1984 decision as “a monumental erosion of property rights,” and she could modify that decision through any number of piecemeal rulings on new cases.
Both candidates played up their Montana roots, Juras as the daughter of hard-working Conrad-area ranchers and Sandefur as the son of Malta natives, his father an auto mechanic and his mother a medical lab technician. Juras attended public schools and graduated from Conrad High. Sandefur said he started in Catholic schools before switching to public school and graduated from Great Falls High.
Sandefur obtained his law degree from UM, Juras from the University of Georgia School of Law.
Juras began her career by spending two years with international law firms, then worked for private firms in Oklahoma and Great Falls for six years. She began teaching at the UM law school in 2000 and is now an adjunct professor there.
Sandefur, after working as a police officer and deputy county attorney, was elected to a newly created judgeship in 2002 and was reelected in uncontested races in 2008 and 2014.
The candidates on agreed on several issues, including the death penalty, saying that since the penalty is part of state law, the job of judges and justices is only to see that it is applied fairly. They also agreed that the biggest obstacle to justice is the lack of high-quality legal representation for everyone.
Juras said she has put in more than 100 hours a year giving free legal help to clients who can’t afford such help. When a member of the audience pressed her on that issue, Sandefur went to her defense, saying that “she has performed extraordinary pro bono work.”
In their closing remarks, the candidates came back to the question of experience. Sandefur said district courts operate much like the Supreme Court, so courtroom experience like his is invaluable. That’s why every retired Montana high court justice has endorsed him, he said.
“Ask judges and lawyers in your community,” he said. “They’ll tell you.”
Juras, for the third time in the forum, said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked the Montana Supreme Court one of the worst in the country in terms of making the state business-friendly. She said the court could use someone familiar with the needs and concerns of small businesses, farmers and ranchers.
“If you want another government lawyer,” she said. “You shouldn’t vote for me.”