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Supreme Court rivals run on experience, dodge partisan labels

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By Allison Connell University of Montant School of Journalism

The race for Montana’s lone contested Supreme Court seat could take a partisan twist now that a federal court has allowed political parties to endorse judicial candidates.

In mid-September, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals overturned Montana’s law forbidding party endorsements in nonpartisan judicial campaigns.

That means the parties are free to endorse either Missoula attorney Ed Sheehy or District Judge Laurie McKinnon, whether the candidates want them to or not.

McKinnon, whose 9th Judicial District stretches to include Glacier, Toole, Pondera and Teton counties, has stressed the importance of nonpartisanship and neutrality throughout her campaign.

Her campaign website says she has never contributed to either political party, and she maintains that will not change. But she has accepted and publicized endorsements from a variety of individuals and non-political associations, however.

“That’s important for people to know that I have district judges that I’ve worked with that think I would be good on the Supreme Court,” she says.

Sheehy says he believes a nonpartisan race precludes him from accepting endorsements by organizations or individuals so he does not list any on his website. He acknowledges that nonpartisan elections can be difficult for candidates and voters both because people want to connect a candidate to a political party.

Judicial races also are different from campaigns for other elected offices because Montana’s Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits candidates from acting or speaking in a way that could jeopardize their independence, integrity or impartiality. It also forbids them from speaking on any topic that is pending or likely to come before the court.

Motives for running

These rules mean interested voters cannot expect answers on current, pertinent issues like abortion, marijuana regulation or health care. Consequently, both Sheehy and McKinnon have focused on their motives for seeking a seat on the bench and the experiences they would bring to the job.

Sheehy says he is running to contribute his many hours of trial experience to the court’s thinking.

“I’ve done a lot of work in front of the Montana Supreme Court,” he says. “Sometimes I am just amazed by the decisions that come out,” he says.

He says the current court is too “outcome based” and adds that justices too often start from a decision they want to reach and work backward to justify it.

McKinnon is running on her experience as well. She says she wants to ensure that the court focuses on interpreting laws, not on making them.

In her time as a district judge, McKinnon says she has not issued a decision from the bench that she believes should come from the Legislature. Montanans need a justice on the Supreme Court who “can make decisions that are based on the rule of law and the Constitution,” she adds.

McKinnon is currently a Montana district judge, having been elected to the post in 2006. She and her family moved to Montana in 1995 and built a home north of Choteau in 1999 allowing both McKinnon and her husband to commute to their jobs. Her husband is a dentist with the U.S. Public Health Service, working in Browning.

McKinnon worked in the Glacier County Attorney’s Office in Cut Bank and in private practice until 2002, when she went to work as a deputy county attorney in the Teton County Attorney’s Office in Choteau. Before she was elected as a judge, she was an attorney with 20 years of practice as both a prosecutor and a defender.

Her campaign highlights her experience with the wide variety of criminal and civil cases that come before district judges, cases that range from serious crimes to divorce settlements.

In one of her most prominent decisions as a district judge, McKinnon ruled in 2010 that the Montana Alberta Tie Line project did not have the power to condemn private land in its effort to build a power line from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Great Falls, Mont.

She also highlights her experience as an attorney, which includes experience in general litigation and in family and criminal law, including cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Missoula lawyer Bradley J. Luck supports McKinnon. He says her time as a judge means she has shown that she can manage the day-to-day practice of law, trials and hearings.

Luck adds that McKinnon “has a long record of even-handed district court decisions and considerations.”

Sheehy has worked at the Missoula Office of Public Defender since 2006 in various roles, including being a part of the Major Crimes Unit and, most recently, training other attorneys for the office.

A Butte native, he attended high school in Oregon and received a bachelor’s degree from Carroll College. After obtaining a law degree from Gonzaga, he became a partner in the Helena firm of Cannon and Sheehy.

In his practice he handled both federal and state cases in areas ranging from administrative law to family law and from class-action cases to criminal defense. He also represents lawyers in front of the Commission on Practice, which weighs allegations of misdeeds and unethical behavior.

In 2004, he took a case for a group of Montana retirees that ended in a U.S. Supreme Court decision awarding all federal retirees a refund of five years of state income taxes.

Since he began practicing law in 1979, Sheehy says he has tried cases in every county and argued more appeals than most active attorneys in the state. He has handled appeals in every division of U.S. District Court in the state, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

John “Jock” Schulte, a Missoula lawyer who has worked with Sheehy, describes him as having a steady mindset, a tremendous amount of jury trial experience, and the ability to resolve difficult cases.

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