- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - The four candidates in Montana’s two contested elections this fall debated the influence of outside spending and partisan politics in judicial campaigns in their first meeting at the University of Montana School of Law.

Former Montana Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke is challenging incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, and challenger W. David Herbert is up against incumbent Justice Jim Rice. The winners in the Nov. 4 elections will serve eight-year terms on the seven-member court.

Much of the discussion Tuesday night centered on the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United decision that allowed unlimited independent corporate spending in federal elections, a decision the high court applied to state elections in a 2012 ruling.

“I don’t want to let us forget what this race really is all about,” Wheat said. “It’s about how our court may be under attack from out-of-state money, from out-of-state corporations who want to come into this state and influence who’s going to be on the court.”

VanDyke defended the Citizens United ruling, saying he believes in organizations’ right to free speech, but then criticized the Montana Trial Lawyers Association for its past spending in support of Supreme Court candidates.

“The issue is whether or not the trial lawyers are going to be the only ones who are spending money,” VanDyke said.

VanDyke spent less than two years as Montana solicitor general under Republican Attorney General Tim Fox after working as an attorney for the Texas law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. He also clerked for federal appellate Judge Janice Rogers Brown, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

Wheat is a former Democratic legislator from Bozeman who was appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2010.

VanDyke made repeated references to Wheat’s past as a partisan legislator, questioning whether that influences his decisions on the bench. Wheat called VanDyke inexperienced in Montana law and lacked leadership skills.

Montana’s judicial elections are nonpartisan, but that did not stop Herbert from naming his allegiance to the Libertarian Party during the forum. Herbert is a Billings attorney who previously ran for Wyoming U.S. House seat as a Libertarian.

Rice said he was proud to be among the six Montana Supreme Court justices who endorsed keeping partisan endorsements out of judicial races.

Rice is a former Republican legislator who was appointed to the court by Republican Gov. Judy Martz in 2001 and has been re-elected once.

Herbert repeatedly advocated for jury nullification, in which jurors rule against laws they decide are unjust or unfair.

Rice called the practice a “subversion of democracy.”

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