The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
On Wednesday, Montana Free Press and Lee newspapers both reported that Gov. Greg Gianforte in February phoned James Brown — an attorney, former lawyer for the state Republican Party, advocate for a prominent conservative dark money group, and current Republican chair of the Public Service Commission — to encourage him to run for a nonpartisan seat on Montana’s Supreme Court. That fact was reportable because Brown talked about it publicly, in front of an audience at a Butte GOP candidate forum in mid-May, the same week primary ballots were mailed to absentee voters.
Partisan officeholders are allowed to endorse whomever they choose, including candidates running for the state Supreme Court. What is not permitted, according to Montana’s Judicial Code of Conduct, is for judicial candidates to “seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization, or partisan or independent non-judicial office-holder or candidate.” In the opinion of former Montana Supreme Court Justice Pat Cotter, who helped revise that code of conduct in 2008, Brown appeared to be “approaching the line, if not crossing it,” when he told the crowd he’d been, in Cotter’s words, “solicited by the governor [and] supported by the governor in his run for judicial office.”
MTFP’s article was met with a chorus of “what abouts” from Republicans pointing out that Montana Democrats have also sought to influence judicial races by supporting their preferred candidates. In this race, some Brown supporters are pushing for the media to apply similar scrutiny to Ingrid Gustafson, the incumbent Supreme Court justice Brown is challenging, for her own links to partisan politicians. Former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock co-hosted a fundraiser for Gustafson in Helena, they noted — what about that? Many of Gustafson’s donors have donated to Democratic candidates in the past or are members of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, which conservatives impugn as a bastion of liberal elites. What about that?
There’s no doubt that politicians and partisan groups of all shades are angling for a judiciary they hope will serve their interests. And the Montana Democratic Party’s hands are hardly clean — as our story also reported, in 2016 the party poured financing into the Supreme Court campaign of current Justice Dirk Sandefur, who was also endorsed by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
But in this race, current Democratic officeholders and the party itself have given Gustafson a wide berth — possibly because they know that overt Democratic support would add fuel to the fire of Republican allegations that Gustafson is a liberal in a nonpartisan robe. So far, that means the coordinated Republican support for Brown in the primary, and the ethical questions that support raises, remain unparalleled.
And for at least some Brown supporters, the candidate’s Republican backing is nothing to shy away from.
“‘Nonpartisan’ races are a facade,” said Kyle Schmauch, the communications director for state Senate Republicans. “Republicans are being transparent.”
But naked partisan influence on the judicial branch, in appearance and in fact, is precisely what the code of judicial conduct is designed to guard against. “An independent, fair, and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice,” the code’s preamble reads. Judges and judicial candidates, it says later, “should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and competence.”
If nothing else, the results of the June 7 primary election may indicate which vision of the judiciary Montana voters embrace.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Credit: Sarah Mosquera/MTFP
Two children share a stick to play a game of double ball at the Bison Range in Moiese last weekend during a three-day celebration of the transfer of Bison Range management to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Missoula-based photojournalist Sarah Mosquera covered the event for Montana Free Press with a photo-essay published Monday.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
“My term is up at the end of this year, and I’ve enjoyed this job tremendously, and I haven’t had to deal with something like this in the previous five years. This is all new because of the constant disinformation, and it’s coming from people that should know better. Respectfully, it’s coming from some of your colleagues.”
— Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, speaking to members of the Legislature’s State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee May 25. Visibly struggling to temper his frustration, Mangan told the committee he’s heard from election judges and other county elections personnel who are “terrified for their safety” due to the actions of 2020 presidential election critics — among them certain Republican state lawmakers — in sowing doubts about the security of Montana’s election process. Mangan encouraged committee members to reassure their constituents that “we have a great system.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Dept. of Corrections 🤥
A year after publishing a story claiming that lobbyist Adrian Jawort verbally harassed a state lawmaker, far-right blogger and Sidney pastor Jordan “J.D.” Hall has publicly apologized and published a correction admitting that the allegation was false.
“I apologize to Adrian Jawort. The information I published about Adrian was false. Adrian did not threaten or harass Senator Butch Gillespie. I regret the error and sincerely apologize to Adrian for publishing it,” Hall wrote on the Montana Daily Gazette website. Hall’s original post about Jawort has also been updated to remove the false allegations and include a correction.
Jawort said the culmination of her libel case against Hall — which wound its way through two district courts, a brief appeal to the state Supreme Court, and federal bankruptcy court — brought her “relief and joy.” In a statement on Twitter, Jawort, who is transgender, said Hall’s posts about her during the last legislative session were “especially dangerous” during a time when “trans ppl like myself are targeted with political bullseyes on our backs.”
“For too many so-called conservatives, my life apparently seems to be a disposable culture war pawn and threat that must be dehumanized and silenced,” she wrote. “[W]hat I want people to realize is beyond culture war headlines lies the very real humanity of people like myself needlessly targeted with bigotry and hate campaigns.”
The settlement between Jawort and Hall was reached in bankruptcy court, where Jawort may be entitled to a judgment of up to $250,000 when the proceedings conclude. Jawort has agreed to ask the state district court in Great Falls to dismiss her libel case against the pastor and will not seek sanctions against Hall based on threatening statements he made during litigation. The settlement agreement clarifies that “it shall not be considered a breach of this agreement if the [district court] Judge independently conducts further proceedings after this settlement.”
Hall’s apology must remain “posted prominently” on the Montana Daily Gazette for a duration of seven days. After that, it can be moved to another part of the website but “may not be retracted or removed.”
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
In a court order issued Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy granted a joint request by the Montana Democratic Party and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to dismiss a case involving election-related legislation passed by the Montana Legislature last spring. The dismissal formally put to rest a legal challenge to a last-minute Republican amendment to Senate Bill 319 — a change that placed significant restrictions on voter registration and signature gathering efforts on college campuses.
Molloy’s order was to some degree an epitaph. The amendment in question, which lawmakers added to SB 319 in the final days of the session, had already been permanently blocked by a state judge in a separate case in February, along with another 11th-hour change to the bill that would have required judges to recuse themselves from cases involving attorneys who donated $91 or more to the judge’s campaign. In that case, filed against Gov. Greg Gianforte, the nonprofit Forward Montana and a coalition of state attorneys successfully argued that both amendments, controversially executed by a free conference committee, failed to align with SB 319’s original intent and were thus unconstitutional. Due to a clause in the bill, the rest of SB 319, which allows political candidates and parties to form joint fundraising committees, remains intact.
At the federal court level, plaintiffs exclusively challenged the on-campus voter registration provision as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. In requesting the case be dismissed, those plaintiffs agreed to drop their claims, and the defendants — Jacobsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan — in turn agreed that the state will not appeal the lower court’s final ruling.
It wasn’t the most dramatic finale, but with Molloy’s order, the book is officially closed on at least one of the legal sagas instigated in the wake of the 2021 Legislature.
—Eric Dietrich, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Total student enrollment across the Montana University System for the 2021-22 academic year. The figure, reported by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education May 18, marks the first system-wide enrollment increase for Montana’s 16 college campuses since 2017-18.
Glenn Thompson, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, stumped with Montana U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke last weekend, making appearances in Belgrade, Great Falls and Helena.
Representatives from the agriculture, forestry and wildfire industries joined them for roundtable events in Helena and Belgrade, where topics of discussion included grizzly bears, climate change, inflation and public land management.
At the May 22 event in Belgrade, hosted by Bridger Aerospace, Zinke offered the occasional quip or question, but largely left the talking to Thompson, who told attendees he wants Zinke in Congress to help him craft the next Farm Bill and called for land managers to use a heavier hand in forestry practices.
“When you isolate a forest and you don’t actively manage it, you’re actually putting it on a pathway to be a single-generation forest,” Thompson said. “Trees burn up, blow away or they die.”
Thompson, who said he has sawdust and milk running through his veins (his signature bill, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, would restore a whole milk option in public schools), also discussed climate change. He said practices that are good for the environment will also benefit adjacent economies.
“In the end, the only true carbon heroes in the world, the largest carbon heroes in the world, [are] the American forester, logger and rancher,” he said.
Zinke touched on his own wildfire-fighting philosophy at the event, advocating for reducing fuel loads via logging, aggressively suppressing wildfires during the hottest, driest months of the year, and conducting prescribed burns in the shoulder seasons.
Asked about the role of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in addressing wildfires, Zinke described climate change as “a megatrend” and natural gas as a cheap, abundant bridge fuel that could help the country transition from carbon-intensive energy sources to cleaner fuel.
“Fossil fuels are going to be around and are part of the solution, but we do it better. Environmentally, it is better to produce energy in this country under our regulation than it is to watch it get produced overseas with no regulation,” he said. “But then we have to look at ways we can shape better and more efficient [energy production] without gutting the economy.”
Zinke also described himself as a Boy Scout who doesn’t look kindly on wasteful practices like the flaring of natural gas.
“We only live on one Earth, so I think we can figure it out,” he said.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Mara Silvers — NPR’s history podcast, Throughline, dedicated a recent episode to how abortion and reproductive medicine was practiced before Roe v. Wade — particularly, how one group of male physicians came to dominate the obstetrics field in the mid-1800s, driven by an explicit goal to make abortion illegal in every state.
Amanda Eggert — I’ve been tracking the rise and fall of Outside magazine for years, including its relatively recent acquisition by Pocket Media, which went on a massive magazine-procuring spree only to let an estimated 20% of its staff go a year and a half later. Adventure Journal, a media company that operates in the same space, but with a different tone and mission, attempts a biopsy of Outside’s latest round of layoffs.
Alex Sakariassen — Tuesday’s tragic shooting at an elementary school in Texas has generated a ton of questions — and, correspondingly, a ton of media coverage — about the exact timeline of events, the shooter’s prior activities and the response from law enforcement. Mixed in with that coverage was one piece from the Texas Tribune answering a more forward-looking question: how members of the public can best aid the survivors of the state’s deadliest school shooting and the families of its victims.
Eric Dietrich — This report from the Salt Lake Tribune on the circumstances that have a Utah hunting guide facing up to five years in prison is bonkers on many levels, not the least of which is the involvement of the child of a former U.S. president.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.