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Government & Politics

2020 Primary Preview: Montana Supreme Court

The Montana Supreme Court seal
State of Montana Supreme Court
/
State of Montana Supreme Court
The Montana Supreme Court seal

Update May 28, 2020: This story has been updated to add more context about each candidate. The update also corrects an error in a previous version of this web story that misstated Mike Black has run for the Montana Supreme Court before. Black applied to be appointed to replace a justice leaving the bench.

Three candidates are vying to fill one of the seven seats on Montana’s Supreme Court. The race is non-partisan and the primary will result in the two candidates with the most votes moving onto the general election in November. All three candidates are promoting their legal backgrounds and experience.

Mike Black is from Havre and this is his second time vying for a seat on the state’s highest court. He applied to be appointed to Justice Brian Morris’ seat in 2014 when Morris was appointed to the federal bench.

Black has practiced law in Montana for about 30 years, representing and suing mining, railroad and insurance companies. He also worked in the state Attorney General’s office for about four years ending in 2015.

“And a lot of that work was defending Montana’s laws with respect to campaign finance and disclosure. I fought a lot of dark money groups,” Black said.

More recently, Black has worked on employee benefit cases under his private practice.

Black’s work and being a fourth-generation Montanan were recently touted in an op-ed article by five retired state Supreme Court justices who endorsed Black.

Missoula attorney Mars Scott is also from Montana and has practiced law in the state for nearly 40 years. Most of his legal career has been in the realm of family and civil law. That’s something he says would round out the bench, which currently has several former prosecutors and district judges on its roster.

“Criminal law is well represented up there but some of the areas of law are not necessarily well represented,” Scott said.

Scott also promotes his 22 years in the Navy.

Both Scott and Black are taking swipes at incumbent Laurie McKinnon for initially saying she wasn’t going to run for a second eight-year term. Both Black and Scott question why she changed her mind.

McKinnon says she shied away from running again because of attack ads during her first campaign against her then opponent Ed Sheehy, which made the race contentious. Those ads were paid for by a political nonprofit and McKinnon has denounced them. She said the thought of that happening again was daunting.

“I changed my mind really when I visited with some friends, other appellate judges at a conference. They gave me so very good advice, which was the worst reason not to run was fear of losing.”

McKinnon is asking voters to focus on her six years of experience as a district judge in the Ninth District, which includes Glacier, Toole, Teton and Pondera counties. She created a substance abuse court in the district, which she says helped better integrate those with addictions back into society.

McKinnon also says the roughly 2,000 cases she has heard while on the state supreme court is an important metric displaying her experience. McKinnon says she’s written majority opinions in about a fifth of those cases.

Jim Shea is running unopposed for reelection in District 6.