Montana Supreme Court justice Ingrid Gustafson
Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson. Credit: Courtesy Gustafson campaign

Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson will serve a second term on Montana’s highest court after winning her race for re-election against attorney and Republican Public Service Commission President James Brown.

With all precincts reporting by Thursday morning, Gustafson held an 8 point lead over Brown, a 37,333 vote margin. The Associated Press declared Gustafson the winner Thursday.

“I am extremely honored to have again earned the trust of voters and to be re-elected to serve all Montanans on the Montana Supreme Court. Our judicial elections are non-partisan for a reason, to ensure that an independent, fair judiciary serves the people of Montana regardless of their circumstances, not a political party or any one agenda of an interest group,” Gustafson said. “Montana voters refused to be divided and manipulated, instead taking a stand for the rule of law and the independence of our judiciary.”

Brown conceded the race on Wednesday morning. In a written statement, he congratulated Gustafson on her re-election and attributed his loss, in part, to high-dollar spending by third-party groups in the final weeks of the campaign.

“We fell short after a hard-fought campaign where we were significantly outspent by special interest groups and saw millions of dollars in liberal money flood the state in the final weeks of this race,” Brown wrote. “Even so, I am humbled by the high level of support our campaign received from Montanans from all across the Treasure State and from all walks of life.”

The court’s other incumbent running to retain his seat, Justice Jim Rice, won his race with a 55 percentage point lead over Billings attorney Bill D’Alton.

Originally appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2017 by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, Gustafson was unopposed when she ran to retain her seat in 2018. She joined the court after serving as a district court judge in Yellowstone County for 14 years. Throughout her judicial tenure, she’s focused on expanding drug treatment courts and developing court reforms for child welfare cases.

Over the course of her eight-month campaign, the veteran judge asked voters to think of her as an impartial referee who leaves personal politics and preferences at the door of the courtroom. Brown and his supporters portrayed her as liberal, lenient on criminal sentencing, and ethically compromised by the support of lawyers who have argued cases before her.

Gustafson’s message appeared to gain the most traction among voters, despite a contest colored by partisan favoritism and record-breaking spending by third-party interest groups. 

The Montana Republican Party, the state’s top elected officials and national conservative interest groups were early and vocal supporters of Brown, bucking political norms for Montana’s nonpartisan judicial races in which candidates are bound by a strict code of conduct. Left-leaning political action groups, including supporters of abortion rights and public land access, responded by rallying behind Gustafson. Those surrogates, along with the historically influential Montana Trial Attorneys political action committee, spent heavily on messaging that championed the incumbent as a defender of Montana’s constitutional rights. 

Collectively, outside groups spent well over $3 million on mailers, television ads, polling and door-knocking for Brown and Gustafson over the course of the campaign, with a flurry of spending stacking up in the final month of the campaign

In her Wednesday statement, Gustafson said the election results showed that voters had rejected the attempted politicization of the court fueled by the Republican Party. 

“I am heartened to know that Montana voters are courageous and bold enough to stand up for our democracy and reject my opponent and his supporters’ inappropriate attempt to politicize our judiciary,” she said.

Gustafson’s apparent victory , on a night when other Republican-backed candidates made gains up and down the ballot, is a reminder of how powerful incumbency can be in nonpartisan elections, said University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin. The fact that the Republican party touted Brown’s candidacy so doggedly, he added, may have also increased the race’s visibility among liberal voters.

James Brown, Montana Supreme Court candidate, speaking at a September campaign event in Beaverhead County. Courtesy photo.

“It is the case that the Democrats and people on the left in general, at least those who are clued in and follow this stuff closely, they’ve rallied to her,” Saldin said. “People are talking about this more than I can ever remember in a Supreme Court race.”

Jessi Bennion, a political science professor at Montana State University and Carroll College, said the results of the Supreme Court race will likely frustrate Republicans who see the judicial branch as an elusive element in their effort to control the levers of state government. 

“The court really is the last GOP holdout in the state, so I think they’re going to keep trying. The problem is, they have a light bench,” Bennion said. “And we can see, plainly now, that it’s been a miscalculation to put a partisan label on a candidate for the court.”

The Montana secretary of state’s office is scheduled to finish canvassing and certifying the results of the election by Dec. 5.

This story was updated Nov. 10 with current results.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.