Get an insider’s look into what’s happening in and around the halls of power with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Sign up to get the free Capitolized newsletter delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

October 19, 2023

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 two terms as Montana 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 Capitolized 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 Montana Supreme Court have featured some of the same dynamics, with the legal establishment and organized labor backing lawyers or jurists 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 chair 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 non-partisan. The top two candidates in the June 2024 primary will advance to the general election. 

Incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath announced in the 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 the media in U.S. v. Kaczynski, and was the plaintiff’s co-counsel in Tanya Gersh v. Andrew Anglin, which led to a $14 million award 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 — now-Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, incidentally — to investigate a securities fraud case because he was having a romantic affair with the subject of the investigation’s wife. The department reached a settlement agreement with the subject of the investigation, David 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.” 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

A Republican Not Named Rosendale Enters Senate Race

Republican former Montana Secretary of State and Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson is running for U.S. Senate, he said this week. 

“Over this last 10 months, as I’ve watched things continue to, in my mind, deteriorate in this country, I felt there was a need for me to get back involved in public service,” Johnson said, pointing to standard conservative political targets like “cancel culture,” the “left wing of the Democratic Party,” the regulatory state, and so on.

Johnson joins early bird candidate Tim Sheehy, a Belgrade businessman and political neophyte, in the Republican effort to topple longtime Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is vying for a fourth term. Congressman Matt Rosendale, a GOP hardliner affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus, is also widely expected to enter the race, though he hasn’t made that step official. Jeremy Mygland was the first Republican to declare candidacy, but has since dropped out, thrown his support behind Rosendale and announced a bid for state Senate. 

Johnson said he, Sheehy and Rosendale likely feel the same about most policy issues. But he reckons that he has the best chance of getting elected. Sheehy, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment both in Montana and Washington, D.C., has too little name recognition in Montana, Johnson said. And Rosendale has run and lost to Tester before, and repeat candidates rarely do better the second time, he added. 

He also differentiated himself from Rosendale, a notorious “no” voter in Congress, as someone who understands his conservative principles but will also accept that, in a policy debate, “75% of something is better than 100% of nothing.” 

And Tester, he said, has become a “creature of Washington” through his 18 years in the Senate. 

Johnson served on the PSC, Montana’s utility regulation body, during the period at the heart of a blistering legislative audit of agency dysfunction and questionable budgetary practices. The audit raised questions about, among other issues, travel that Johnson had paid for with the PSC’s money. Johnson, current PSC chair James Brown said at the time, had to surrender his government credit card. 

​​”As far as that audit is concerned, I was never given an opportunity to respond to those accusations,” Johnson said. “The fact of the matter is, I never once traveled other than standard coach fare at the cost of the taxpayer. I did in fact get upgrades, because I had status with the airlines. There was one flight that I booked comfort class because coach was full, and when that was questioned, I refunded the difference.” 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

The Hardest Working Man in Insurance Regulation

Public Service Commission chair James Brown told Capitolized that he will run for state auditor and commissioner of securities and insurance in 2024 if the office’s current occupant, Republican Troy Downing, runs for Montana’s eastern U.S. House district, a decision that itself depends on whether Congressman Matt Rosendale vacates the seat to run for U.S. Senate. 

Brown, a longtime conservative-aligned attorney in Montana, will run for the position as a Republican. 

Brown was elected to the PSC in 2020. He ran for state Supreme Court against incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson in 2022. Gustafson defeated Brown by almost 10 points.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Labor is Politics

Registered nurses at the St. Peter’s Medical Group’s Broadway and North clinics in Helena voted overwhelmingly this week to unionize, 45-14. They will now join Montana Nurses Association Local #13. 

“We are excited to have all nurses at St. Peter’s be included in Local #13,” a clinic nurse, Andrea Thies, said in a statement. “Nurses deserve to have their wages and benefits managed fairly. We look forward to re-building a trusting relationship with St. Peter’s to better serve the people in our community.”

The vote follows what the union described as an “aggressive” anti-union push by the hospital.

“St. Peter’s Health embarked on an aggressive push to get nurses to vote against joining Local #13, including hiring an out-of-state anti-union ‘consultant’ from Florida, who helped the hospital collect personal and private information on nurses in order to dissuade them from joining the union,” the union said in a statement. 

The hospital ended a contract with a “union consultant” earlier this month after nurses discovered that the consulting team had created a document containing personal information about members of the potential bargaining unit, as reported by the Daily Montanan. The hospital has objected to allegations of “union busting.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Neither Chief Justice Mike McGrath nor Justice Dirk Sandefur will seek re-election to Montana Supreme Court in 2024: Justices McGrath and Sandefur explained their reasons for not seeking re-election in this news-breaking Montana Free Press piece. 

Tacke guilty of fraud: It’s worth taking another look at the facts of the David Tacke case, as reported by the Daily Inter Lake in 2005.

2021 Department of Public Service financial compliance audit