This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a weekly newsletter with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Thursday? Sign up here.
Longtime Helena attorney and former Democratic state official John Morrison is running for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, he announced this week.
Morrison, who served from 2001 to 2009 as Montana’s commissioner of securities and insurance, currently works in private practice in Helena. He’s centering the political conflict surrounding the judicial branch in his campaign.
“I’m running because our courts have been under attack in recent years,” Morrison told Montana Free Press Thursday. “I want to make sure that they remain open and fair and impartial and independent for all Montanans.”
That’s important, he added, because Montanans’ freedoms come from the state Constitution, “and those freedoms,” whether the right to privacy or the right to bear arms, “are only as good as the courts that are there to enforce and interpret them.”
Recent races for the Montana Supreme Court have featured some of the same dynamics, with the legal establishment and organized labor backing lawyer or jurist candidates who emphasize the importance of judicial independence and respect for precedent pitted against conservative business-backed candidates who imply, to various degrees, that the court is held captive by liberal trial lawyers.
But Montana’s current political era has heightened these tensions, with a Republican-dominated Legislature — backed by a Republican governor and attorney general — repeatedly running afoul of the high court’s constitutional interpretations, generating a separation-of-powers conflict that colored much of the 2021 legislative session and the 2022 contest between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and Public Service Commission President James Brown, a conservative attorney. Gustafson won that race.
That the court is a political lightning rod is no accident of history: It’s through the high court’s interpretation of the state Constitution’s broad privacy provision that Montanans have the abortion access that GOP lawmakers are working to restrict.
Former federal magistrate court judge Jerry Lynch, the only other candidate in the chief justice race so far, has made similar points as Morrison in his campaign materials.
“The future of the State of Montana is in your hands — and those of your family, friends and neighbors who vote in Montana,” he wrote in a statement on his campaign website. “We must all come together to protect the independence, impartiality and integrity of Montana’s Supreme Court and Montana’s judicial branch.”
The two candidates are almost certain to face additional challengers, as neither seems likely to receive the backing of conservatives. Races for Montana Supreme Court are nonpartisan. The top two candidates in the June 2024 primary will advance to the general election.
Incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath announced in Montana Free Press in June that he would not seek re-election in 2024, as did Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur. State district court judges Katherine Bidegaray and Dan Wilson are running for Sandefur’s seat.
Morrison said he wants to run for chief justice, as opposed to Sandefur’s seat, because he’d “like to be in a leadership position during these important times.”
“In some ways, the chief justice is just another justice — they only have one vote — but it’s also a position that is responsible for articulating some of these values that I talked about,” Morrison said.
Morrison, though never a judge, said he has the most experience before the Supreme Court in the race — he’s been lead counsel on at least 20 appeals before the court.
He’s played a starring role in many chapters of Montana legal history. He was lead counsel in the state’s tobacco litigation, represented media outlets as they vied for greater access in the U.S. v. [Ted] Kaczynski trial, and was the plaintiff’s co-counsel in Tanya Gersh v. Andrew Anglin, which led to a $14 million judgment against Anglin, the owner of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.
He also drafted I-155, the 2008 ballot initiative that led to the creation of the Healthy Montana Kids Plan.
In 2006, Morrison ran in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary against the ultimately successful Jon Tester. During that race, the media uncovered that Morrison, while serving his first term as securities and insurance commissioner, had hired outside counsel — current Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, incidentally — to investigate a securities fraud case because he had previously had a romantic affair with a woman who went on to marry the subject of the investigation, David Tacke. Morrison was at the time and remains married. The department reached a settlement agreement with Tacke. Federal investigators conducted their own probe, and Tacke was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison on counts of mail and wire fraud. Morrison maintained that he properly distanced himself from the matter and that his affair did not affect the outcome of his department’s investigation.
“There’s nothing to adjudicate, nobody ever filed any kind of a complaint or ethics charge, anything,” Morrison told Capitolized.
Morrison comes from a multi-state political family. His grandfather, Frank B. Morrison Sr., was a Democratic governor of Nebraska from 1961 to 1967. And his father, Frank B. Morrison Jr., sat on the Montana Supreme Court from 1981 to 1987.
“I still have [Morrison Jr.’s] robe hanging in one of our closets,” John Morrison said. “I’m not running because of that, but as I’ve approached the idea of whether I would run, I’ve certainly thought about his career. I was in college and law school when he was on the court. He and I talked a lot. I probably have benefitted from those insights in my career.”
This story was updated Oct. 20, 2023, to clarify the time frame of Morrison’s affair.
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