Montana Supreme Court
Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson and current Public Service Commission Chair James Brown have emerged as the top two vote-getters in the non-partisan primary election for the high court’s second seat, setting up a general election clash at a time of high political visibility for the court. 

Ingrid Gustafson Credit: Courtesy photo

Gustafson, who has served on the state Supreme Court since late 2017, netted about 100,000 votes with more than 60% counted as of late Tuesday

“I’m very honored and thankful that Montana voters have given me the opportunity to do the work that I want to do and run for election to the Supreme Court in the general election,” Gustafson said Tuesday night. “I’m eager to continue serving Montanans and to continue to build on my 20 years of judicial experience.”

Brown received about 66,000 votes, enough to secure the second spot in the three-way primary but still trailing Gustafson by 16 points. Montana Supreme Court primaries are non-partisan, though electoral politics often seep in. The two candidates with the most votes continue to the November general election. 

“I’m humbled to see this level of support for my candidacy from Montanans residing all across the Treasure State, and to have earned your trust as we work together to restore faith in our judiciary system and in the rule of law,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday evening. 

The third candidate in the race was Montana First Judicial District Court Judge Mike McMahon, who conceded Tuesday evening with roughly 30,000 votes, lagging behind Brown by almost 20 points. 

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Republican support colors Montana Supreme Court race

In his campaign for the Montana Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Ingrid Gustafson, who is seeking re-election, attorney James Brown is receiving the race’s most overtly partisan support from a long list of elected Republicans. This month, Brown referenced Gov. Greg Gianforte’s support of his candidacy when he told attendees at a candidate…

“I’m grateful for all those who supported my attempt to try to preserve and protect Montana’s independent judiciary,” McMahon said in a text. “I sincerely appreciate the votes I received in today’s primary.”

In the background of the race was a GOP effort to reshape the judiciary in the 2021 session, a push that spilled over into a protracted separation-of-powers conflict stemming from long-standing suspicions of the court on the right that is likely to color the forthcoming general election campaign

Gustafson has emphasized her institutional experience and criticized what she sees as creeping politicization of the high court, dismissing many of the claims against the judiciary as “hoopla.”

She said Tuesday that the primary results show Montanans value judicial independence and judges that “are fairly and impartially applying the law and … are not beholden to other interests.”

In 2003, Republican Gov. Judy Martz appointed Gustafson to the Yellowstone County District Court, where she established a reputation as champion of family court reform. In 2017, Gustafson was appointed to the high court by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, and retained her seat the following year. 

James Brown

Brown, who was encouraged to run for the seat by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and has since received a slate of endorsements from prominent Republicans in the state, has pledged to “bring accountability back to the judicial branch,” echoing lines of attack from conservatives last year that the judiciary is beholden to Democrats and intent on stymying GOP legislation. 

“As a constitutional conservative, I am the only candidate in this race who will always follow the Constitution and the law as it is written — not make law from the bench — and I will proudly defend our constitutional rights, freedoms, and liberties,” Brown’s Tuesday night statement continued. 

Brown, of Dillon, began his tenure on the PSC in 2021. He’s not served as a judge but has touted a variety of legal experience in his solo-practice firm. He also has longstanding ties to the right-wing legal establishment, working as counsel to the Montana Republican Party from 2009 to 2015 and representing the American Tradition Partnership in a high-profile legal fight over state campaign finance law. 

Montana Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms. Two spots on the bench were up for election this year: Gustafson’s, and the seat held by Justice Jim Rice. 

Rice had only one opponent, Billings attorney Bill D’Alton. Both will advance to the November general election. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.