- Associated Press - Monday, April 28, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday asked four nominees for a Montana Supreme Court vacancy for their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the judicial system, and whether they would be able to hold on to the seat if appointed.

In between his questions about the law, the Democratic governor asked the nominees if they anticipated any problems being confirmed by the state Senate in 2015, and how they would handle a statewide election the following year.

Bullock is making a rare appointment to the state's highest court after former Justice Brian Morris resigned to become a federal judge. The seven justices on the court are normally elected to eight-year terms, but an appointee must withstand the scrutiny of both the Senate and the voters within two years of being named to the seat.

“I think there will be challenges, frankly, for anybody you appoint,” said Kalispell attorney Amy Eddy, one of the candidates.

The challenges include a Senate that was led by Republicans who shot down some high-profile gubernatorial appointees last session, including former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, whom Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed to the Board of Regents.

Many of the same Republicans were upset when Bullock appointed his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to replace U.S. Sen. Max Baucus earlier this year. They complained Bullock did so without the public process that is part of judicial appointments.

The state Supreme Court appointee will be on the bench for nearly a year before confirmation, allowing that person to establish a record of decisions. Several legislators also take the view that the governor’s Supreme Court appointment is one to be upheld or rejected by the voters in the next election, Eddy said.

Bullock must make his decision by May 9, so he spent up to an hour interviewing each nominee separately in the Capitol.

The finalists chosen by the Judicial Nomination Commission are attorneys Eddy, Elizabeth Brennan of Missoula and Patrick Watt of Great Falls, along with Montana Workers’ Compensation Court Judge Jim Shea of Helena.

The public interviews were attended by Lt. Gov. Angela McLean and three of Bullock’s top advisers. They listened while the governor asked each candidate questions that ranged from what role the personal views of a justice should enter into a decision to what they would do if they disagreed with a legal precedent.

He also asked whether the court has a role in the disparity of the high percentage of Native American inmates compared to the overall population and what they would change in how the court operates.

Brennan answered that last question by calling the high court’s unpublished opinions a “pet peeve” of hers. Unpublished opinions are decisions that can’t be used as precedent for future cases.

Brennan said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave up issuing unpublished opinions and she would like to understand better why the Montana court still does.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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