Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gerrymandering the Montana Supreme Court

Unless the courts toss it out on constitutional grounds some time soon, Montanans will have the dubious privilege of voting on LR-119 in this June’s primary election. This measure, which was pushed through the Legislature with heavy Republican and almost zero Democratic support, would provide for Montana Supreme Court justices to be elected in the future by district, rather than statewide, as they are now. Not surprisingly, given its provenance, the referendum has just won the approval of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

LR-119 has been flying under the radar so far, but you can expect to hear a lot  more about it in the coming months. Proponents are going to be telling you that it will get people more interested in Supreme Court races, that it will bring those races down to the local level and make them more competitive and reflective of local  concerns, that it will create a regionally balanced court, that it will...well, who knows what additional benefits it will shower on Montana?

What you won’t hear from proponents is that if LR-119 passes and some day you have a case before the Supreme Court, you will have had the opportunity to vote for only one of its six members. You won’t hear that we will have a court that could, and very likely will, be made up of six justices, not one of whom could win a statewide election. You won’t hear that we will have a politicized court beholden to parochial regional interests rather than responsive to one people and one Constitution.

And what you really won’t hear is that Republicans want LR-119 to pass because it simply hasn’t been possible to elect at large enough like-minded justices to make the Montana Supreme Court as conservative as that other one in Washington, D.C. On the contrary: our court seems bent on protecting our right to a clean and healthy environment, or to privacy, or to keeping big corporate spending out of our elections. So what are the Republicans trying to do? In a word, they want to gerrymander the election of the Montana Supreme Court by carving out a few conservative districts. That way they can be sure that there will be a few would-be Alitos or Thomases or Scalias on the bench in Helena, even if a majority of Montanans don’t want them there.