Governor Greg Gianforte signed the TEACH Act into law at Sacajawea Elementary School in Great Falls on Friday, March 5.The TEACH Act, or Tomorrow’s Educators Are Coming Home Act, provides $2.5 million in incentives to improve starting teacher pay. Currently, Montana has the lowest average starting teacher pay in the country. “This new law will help increase starting teacher pay and make it easier for tomorrow’s educators to stay in Montana or come back home,” Governor Gianforte said. “Democrats and Republicans in the legislature delivered on this bill to strengthen our classrooms and communities. This new law is a promising step forward as we lead the Montana comeback.” The legislation was sponsored by Conard State Representative Llew Jones.

The political authority of the state is constitutionally separated into the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. To defend and promote liberty, these three branches must maintain separation and act independently. 

The legislative and executive branches are partisan. The Framers of the Constitution believed that an independent judiciary was central to our form of government. While judges do not run for office with party affiliation, the reality is that judges are people with a past life and history thus are often informally aligned with a party. 

There is growing concern that the “independent” Montana judiciary is not so independent anymore. This session there were four bills to address this, two of which I supported as improving judicial independence. Let us discuss my reasoning.

I opposed the bill that would have forced all District Court and Supreme Court Justices to run as partisans. The argument for a “yes: vote was enhanced voter transparency, that the court system would be strengthened by having the powerful party machines engage in Montana’s judicial elections. 

As an individual with an independent streak, I have directly experienced both the wrath and support of the powerful party machine. When I prioritize and represent my conscience or constituents ahead of party boss directives, the party targets me by funding opponents in primaries, spinning what I voted for or against, and flooding my district with fliers and social media attacks.

The pressure to conform is immense. As such, I do not see how subjecting judges to the pressure cooker of hyper-partisan political bosses moves the court toward independence. In fact, it is likely to cause the exact opposite. 

I was a “no” on this bill, and on the next variation, which required that Supreme Court Justices run as partisans.

I did support two bills that moved the court towards being a more independent body. One directed that Supreme Court Justices be elected from seven geographically distinct districts. Given the size and diversity of Montana, this would result in a Supreme Court that better represents the entire state. This should help balance the rural, and often more conservative judicial voice, against the urban, and often more liberal judicial voice.

I also supported a bill that allows the Governor to make appointments to the court, subject to Senate confirmation, without requiring that the Governor select from a list set forth by the existing judicial nominating panel. While the Governor is certainly a partisan, this still seemed a positive step over allowing the possibility of a judge feeling obligated to a selection panel dominated by trial lawyers. 

Moreover, Governors serve for a finite period, eight years maximum, and the Senate confirmation process is public. This process facilitates input from across Montana. While this is not a perfect solution, it does represent favorable movement towards enhanced public input and independence.

I find the growing hyper-partisan nature of today’s political environment repulsive. In a recent phone threat, I was called a “Marxist Fascist thug.”

The best way to prevent D.C. chaos from entrenching itself in Montana is to not act like D.C. I try to behave with grace, treating everyone respectfully–irrespective of our often-disparate political points of view. While behaving with grace seems a lost art, it remains the behavior we should strive to emulate.

Thank you for allowing me to be your legislator.

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