Supreme Court seat up for grabs

An important yet often overlooked race this November is for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court.

After holding office for 16 years, current Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson is retiring, leaving his seat open. Running for this position are Laurie McKinnon and Ed Sheehy.

Sheehy, a native Montanan from Missoula, is an attorney with the Office of the State of Public Defenders. He worked in a private practice in Montana for 28 years and has mentored and trained other attorneys as a public defender for the past six years.

McKinnon, currently a judge on the Montana District Court, worked as a prosecutor for 10 years and a defense attorney for another 10. She was elected as district judge in 2006, when she ran against District Judge Marc Buyske. McKinnon is originally from Maryland, and moved to Montana in 1995.

Unlike most races this November, the Supreme Court election is non-partisan by law. Candidates are prohibited from engaging in any campaign behavior that is inconsistent with the “independence, integrity or impartiality of the judiciary.”

The candidates are allowed to receive endorsements, however. McKinnon has been endorsed by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Farm Bureau, over two dozen Montana district judges and the Billings Gazette. Sheehy has been endorsed by a pair of Montana labor unions.

Though non-partisan, most of McKinnon’s campaign contributors are Republicans, and she has been endorsed by some Republican groups.

Both candidates have raised and spent roughly $50,000 on the campaign and have traveled throughout Montana during the past year, meeting with groups and individuals to spread their message.

Polls show that large portions of the Montana public are undecided about the race.

The Montana Supreme Court is made up of seven justices, one chief justice — currently Mike McGrath — and six associate justices. The Court reviews cases on appeal from Montana’s District Courts.

The other Supreme Court seat up for election is held by Justice Brian Morris, who is running unopposed.