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Broadwater County Attorney announces candidacy for Montana Supreme Court

Cory Swanson's entry into the race cues up a contest with former federal magistrate court judge Jerry Lynch for the court's chief justiceship

Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson announced his candidacy for Montana Supreme Court earlier this month, setting up a contest between Swanson and former federal magistrate court judge Jerry Lynch for the court's chief justiceship.

"When Montanans go to court, they expect a fair judge who will issue rulings based on the facts and the law, not on ideology," he said Wednesday in a campaign announcement on the conservative radio show Montana Talks. "I'm committed to being a fair and impartial chief justice, who will interpret the law and not legislate from the bench. Montana voters should demand that of every judge and judicial candidate."

Swanson, a 2004 graduate of the University of Montana law school, served as a deputy attorney general under Republican Tim Fox in 2013 and 2014, and began his tenure as Broadwater County Attorney the next year.

Reached by phone Thursday, he said he wants to provide voters with a choice for the open chief justice spot. Previously, only Lynch was in the race, following the bow-out of former state auditor John Morrison.

"Lynch has had a distinguished career," Swanson said, "but I come from a different background, I present a good contrast."

He noted that most of Lynch's career on the bench has been spent as a member of the federal court system, and that Swanson's recent experience as a local prosecutor gives him a fresh perspective.

There are two open seats on the Montana Supreme Court this election cycle, owing to the successive announcements by incumbent Chief Justice Mike McGrath and Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur that they are not seeking re-election.

Judicial politics have reached a fever pitch in recent years, with a protracted separation-of-powers conflict over legislative subpoena power, a spate of constitutional challenges to laws passed by the newly empowered GOP legislative majority, and attacks by members of that party - prominently including Attorney General Austin Knudsen - on the judiciary's integrity and independence. Those critics often accuse the justices of "legislating from the bench" - in other words, handing down rulings that expand the meaning of the law rather than ruling based strictly on its text.

Swanson was unwilling to accuse the high court of any specific bias, but said voters want a jurist who's willing to clearly state that a judge must be willing "to set aside their own preferences and decide a case" on the merits.

He also said he feels that some contemporary criticism of the judiciary is unfounded, and that judges inevitably have occasion to interpret the law beyond what's strictly written.

"The court should do its very best to leave the policy advocacy issues to the political branches, it should do its very best to interpret the statutes and evaluate them relative to constitutional claims," he said.

As of Thursday, district court judges Katherine Bidegaray and Dan Wilson have declared their candidacies for Sandefur's seat on the high court.

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