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Broadwater County Attorney Swanson joins Montana Supreme Court chief justice race

Cory Swanson
Posted at 5:20 PM, Feb 22, 2024

HELENA — This year, Montana voters are going to choose two members of the state Supreme Court, including the chief justice. Another candidate officially filed for that top spot this week.

Cory Swanson, county attorney of Broadwater County, filed his paperwork with the Montana Secretary of State’s Office Tuesday. He became the second candidate with a spot on the ballot for chief justice, and the fourth to file for either of the open seats.

In launching his campaign, Swanson said he sees a need to remove political bias from Montana’s courts. He alluded to disputes between the Legislature and the judiciary in recent years.

“I think we need to ensure that, to the very best of their ability, the judges should set politics aside and rule strictly on the facts and the law of each case,” he said. “I really think that's the answer to the conflict that we're seeing right now among the branches – not more aggressive political stances from the court, but actually trying to remove politics, if at all possible, from the conduct of the court and the rulings of the Supreme Court. That's not an easy thing to do; I totally understand that.”

Swanson was elected Broadwater County attorney, a nonpartisan position, in 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a deputy attorney general under former Attorney General Tim Fox. He’s also spent 27 years as a member of the Montana Army National Guard, serving three overseas deployments – most recently in 2022, when he took a leave of absence from the county to command a battalion. He says he has years of experience litigating in state courts that will prepare him for the bench.

Cory Swanson

Swanson describes his philosophy as “judicially conservative” as opposed to “judicially activist,” and says he believes some of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings have been activist. While he admits he’s had a history in Republican politics and calls himself a conservative, he says he sees a conservative judicial philosophy as different from a political philosophy.

“I know people who are politically conservative that are advocating for a conservative activist court: Go in and just start cutting down precedents that we don't like,” he said. “I think that's the wrong approach entirely, and I think that would also undermine the functioning of the court.”

The chief justice also additional responsibilities for administering the Supreme Court and supervising other parts of the state’s judicial branch. Swanson says his time in the military and county government have prepared him for the leadership role, and he believes he can effectively make the case to legislators to fund things like additional judge positions and courtroom security.

The other candidate who’s filed for chief justice so far is Jerry Lynch of Missoula, a former federal magistrate judge for the District of Montana. Lynch submitted his paperwork to the Secretary of State on Jan. 11, the day filing opened.

Jerry Lynch

Lynch, who announced his campaign early last year, plans to campaign on his years of serving as a judge, saying there’s no substitute for experience. He also says he’s going to make the case that the independence of Montana’s judicial system is under attack, and he believes he’s the best candidate to stand up for it.

“I entered this crucial race for chief justice to preserve, defend and fight for the impartiality and independence of the courts – an independence that's essential for the protection of our constitutional freedoms – that’s why I’m in this race,” Lynch said. “I speak to a broad spectrum of our citizens across the board. I can say this, and I feel good about it: I am being supported by a broad, very broad spectrum of attorneys and citizens, the attorneys that have practiced before me from both sides of the bar.”

Two candidates have filed for the associate justice position, both of them current state district court judges: Katherine Bidegaray of Sidney and Dan Wilson of Flathead County.

The two positions are open because incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur decided not to run for another eight-year term.

Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, but in recent years, several campaigns have drawn competition as heated as any other statewide election. The 2022 race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and challenger James Brown became one of the most high-profile and expensive elections in the state.

If any more candidates file for either of these seats, the two who receive the most votes in the June primary will move on to the general election. Candidate filing will be open until March 11.