MTN profiles candidates for Montana Supreme Court associate justice

Montana Supreme Court Chamber
Dan Wilson
2024 Candidate Filing First Day
Jerry O'Neil
Posted at 8:12 PM, May 17, 2024

HELENA — MTN is continuing our look at the closely watched races for two open seats on Montana’s Supreme Court.

Justice Dirk Sandefur was elected to the court in 2016, and he decided not to seek another eight-year term in 2024. That led to three people filing for a chance to win one of the six associate justice positions. The two candidates with the most votes in the June primary will move on to the general election in November.

The first two people to announce they were running for associate justice are both state district court judges.

Dan Wilson
District Judge Dan Wilson (center) speaks to House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier before a candidate forum at the Kleffner, near East Helena, Apr. 14, 2024.

Dan Wilson, of Kalispell, is one of five judges of the 11th Judicial District, which covers Flathead County. He was elected to the position in 2016 and reelected in 2022. Wilson previously worked as a deputy county attorney, then spent about a decade in private practice, doing a variety of work – including family law and criminal defense. In 2010, he was elected as a justice of the peace for Flathead County. He says he wants to center his campaign on his experience and record.

“I'm not running to carry water for any sort of political issue or any political group,” Wilson said. “I'm merely offering up again my candidacy to Montanans as a judge with a proven record for following the law and the Constitution, and one who doesn't insert his own views or the views of stakeholders or interested parties or special interests to determine whether something passes a legal test or not.”

Wilson says recent political tensions around the court are an inevitable when branches of government are in conflict over their roles. He said it’s important for justices to hold to legal standards when making their decisions, and that he doesn’t believe Montanans want justices to advocate for particular interests.

“The Supreme Court functions best, I believe, when it is the quiet branch, when it's simply there resolving disputes in a fair and constitutional way – that it does its level best to avoid making unsolicited or unnecessary comments attacking any other branch of government, but simply issues opinions that are well supported by the Constitution, the rule of law, logic and good reason,” he said.

2024 Candidate Filing First Day
Austin James, with the Montana Secretary of State's Office, assisted district judge and Montana Supreme Court candidate Katherine Bidegaray with her filing Jan. 11. Bidegaray, of Sidney, brought along her dog Patxi.

Katherine Bidegaray, of Sidney, has been a district judge since 2003 – one of two serving the 7th Judicial District, which covers Richland, Dawson, McCone, Prairie and Wibaux Counties on Montana’s eastern edge. She said her rural and eastern Montana background would bring a different perspective to the court.

Bidegaray says the current Supreme Court justices are doing a good job, citing a state survey of judges and attorneys that showed 80% of respondents agreed the court’s decisions were based on facts and applicable law. She said accusations that the court has overstepped its role are misplaced.

“I think it is especially important during these times that we have a judiciary that remains fair and impartial, that remains independent of the other two branches of government, and that is prepared to fulfill its function of correcting an abuse of power if, in fact, one of the other two branches of government, including the legislature, overreaches the constitutionally provided powers it has,” she said.

Bidegaray says it’s important to stand up against what she sees as political attacks on the judiciary.

“I just want to be able to do my part so we can maintain our democracy and the rule of law and protect the beautiful rights that our Montana Constitution provides us, which include some really unique rights: the right to privacy, the right to equality of education, the right to access to public lands and water, and the right to a clean and healthful environment,” she said. “Those are unique in our Constitution, and those rights have been under attack.”

Jerry O'Neil
Former state legislator Jerry O'Neil addresses a legislative committee, April 29, 2024.

The third candidate is in an unusual position: admitting his eligibility for the court is likely to be questioned. Jerry O’Neil is a former Republican state lawmaker from Columbia Falls who spent eight years in the state Senate and four years in the House. He describes himself as a mediator and independent paralegal, but he’s not a licensed attorney under the State Bar of Montana.

The Montana Constitution says candidates for Supreme Court must have been “admitted to the practice of law in Montana for five years.” O’Neil says the court and the bar are acting as a “monopoly” by preventing someone from getting licensed as an attorney or practicing law in state courts without having attended an accredited law school.

In December, he filed a federal lawsuit, asking the court to rule that he was eligible to run for Montana Supreme Court because he has been admitted to practice law in Blackfeet tribal court. However, after he filed his candidacy, he dropped the case, telling MTN he thought the judge would likely rule against him “to protect his monopoly.”

O’Neil said, if he wins, he believes his election would not be challenged.

“They might do it, but I don't think they're going to go against the public like that,” he said.

O’Neil said he was running for the Supreme Court because he believed justices had been overstepping their role on issues like abortion and election regulations, and because he wanted to further challenge the court and the bar.

“The voters I've talked to are up in arms over the Supreme Court legislating from the bench, and the majority of them, virtually all of them, are not appreciative of the attorney monopoly,” he said.

Montana voters will also select a new chief justice this year. Three candidates are also running for that position.