- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Chief Justice Mike McGrath stood over a short stack of file folders, some bound by rubber bands, as he talked about his court’s growing caseload.

When he arrived on the state Supreme Court nearly eight years ago, cases were piled high. His first campaign focused on clearing the backlog that left some cases waiting for decisions for more than a year, he said.

As he campaigns for a second eight-year term, McGrath said he has kept his pledge to bring greater efficiency to the court. On average, cases are being decided within 100 days of being filed, he said.

“I think people who follow the Supreme Court know that we’ve been an independent court that is fair,” he said in an interview in his chambers.

Three seats on the state’s seven-member high court, including McGrath’s, are up for election during the June 7 primary. Runoffs, if necessary, will be held during the November general election.

At least one of the races will be contested. Kristen Gustafson Juras, a University of Montana law professor, and District Court Judge Dirk Sandefur are seeking the seat held by retiring Justice Patricia Cotter.

With a month to go before the March 14 election filing deadline, no one has yet to challenge McGrath.

In addition to the improved efficiency of the court, McGrath also increased the frequency of oral arguments before the court, said Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at the University of Montana.

“It gave justices a chance to ask tough questions,” Johnstone said. “And it gave an opportunity for the public to see how justice works, and improve public engagement.”

McGrath, a former two-term state attorney general, said he supports having judges periodically face the electorate.

“I think it’s important that we remain accountable,” he said.

But he bemoaned the role of fundraising in judicial campaigns, which are not immune to the influences of dark money and outside spending.

Two years ago, outside groups spent nearly $1.4 million to influence the race between Justice Mike Wheat and challenger Lawrence VanDyke.

The Montana Growth Network, a politically conservative nonprofit, also spent thousands of dollars in 2012 in support of Laurie McKinnon’s successful Supreme Court campaign.

In 2011, McGrath wrote the 5-2 majority opinion upholding the Montana Corrupt Practices Act, an initiative passed by voters in 1912 that tried to rein in the flow of money to state politics.

He noted the “profound long-term impacts” of money-laden politics on the state’s future.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed McGrath a year later, upholding its Citizens United decision that removed limits on how much corporations can spend to influence campaigns. That set the stage for groups such as the Montana Growth Network.

Unlike most other statewide offices, the bench is a nonpartisan position.

“We don’t run on issues. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find things to talk about,” he said. “So what I’m running on is our reputation that we’re doing a good job. … I’d like to stay.”

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