Outside money fuels attack ads in Supreme Court race

With just a few days left before Election Day, the battle for a pivotal seat on the Montana Supreme Court is heating up. But much of the spending in the last week isn’t coming from the candidates themselves – it’s coming from outside groups.

One of those groups is Montanans for Liberty and Justice. It’s backing District Judge Dirk Sandefur of Great Falls for the open seat. In one notable TV spot from the group, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer accuses Sandefur’s opponents of running misleading ads, then turns and shoots a hole in a TV showing one of those ads.

The ad goes on to accuse Sandefur’s opponent, Great Falls attorney Kristen Juras, of being backed by big out-of-state companies. Another charges that she served as top attorney for a company indicted and fined $2 million for money laundering and bribery, and that she supported restricting public stream access.

Juras told MTN she did serve as general counsel for Crop Growers Corp., a crop insurance firm, from 1995 to mid-1996. She says the company was indicted for illegal campaign contributions made before she started work for them, and the fine came as part of a settlement in 1997, after she stopped.

On stream access, Juras says state law on stream access is settled, the court will not have the power to change existing law, and bringing it up in this campaign is a distraction from other issues.

Juras has also denied being a “tool of out-of-state corporate interests.” She says special interests from inside Montana are also playing a role in the election.

“Interestingly, the group that consistently spends the most money on the Montana Supreme Court race, and has for many years, is the Montana Trial Attorneys Association,” Juras said.

Montanans for Liberty and Justice has spent about $600,000 on ads and mailers, including more than $250,000 since Oct. 20. The majority of that money came from Montana Law PAC, the Montana Trial Lawyers Association’s political action committee. Some attorneys around the state donated as much as $50,000 each to the PAC.

The winner of next week’s election will replace retiring Justice Patricia Cotter. If Juras, seen as more conservative-leaning, takes the seat, it could shift the political balance on the Supreme Court. That’s drawing a lot of outside interest – and money.

The first independent expenditures of the election were attack ads aimed at Sandefur. The group StopSetEmFreeSandefur.com accused him of giving light sentences to people convicted of sexually abusing children or having child pornography. Sandefur’s supporters say those sentences were based on plea deals that he had no role in making.

Almost all the money funding the ads against Sandefur came from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group based out of Washington, D.C., dedicated to electing Republicans to state offices. The RSLC’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has contributed more than $280,000 to StopSetEmFreeSandefur.com.

Other groups are also getting involved. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana PAC has spent $75,000 on mailers for Sandefur, and the Montana Democratic Party spent $62,000 on mailers and radio spots.

Ads funded with independent expenditures are out of the control of the candidates. Both Juras and Sandefur say they want voters to look at their records, instead of focusing on the attacks.

“It’s happening on both sides; the public needs to be aware of that,” said Juras. “There’s disclosure rules, which I support, requiring disclosures of outside expenditures, and the voters need to keep that in mind as they vote.”

The candidates themselves are still trying to get their messages out. In the most recent filing period, Sandefur’s campaign paid about $25,000 for ads and mailers. Juras spent $10,000 for ads on Facebook.