“Are you now, or have you ever been, a partisan hack?” That is the animating question for a pile of new legislation designed to dismantle any shred of independence, impartiality, or bipartisanship within Montana’s judiciary, local governments, and legislative committees. Sadly, the preferred answer (even the required answer) to that question is, “Yes! I am, indeed, a proud partisan hack. Here are my credentials.”
For generations, Montanans took pride in rising above the crass partisan politicking that dominated Washington D.C. and less independent-minded states. We scorned those dysfunctional systems where no issue was too small to avoid bickering, grandstanding, or refusing to work together for common sense solutions. We were better than that.
Public servants were proud to work across the aisle with a willingness to cooperate and compromise to get things done. We respected the healthy checks and balances within our government’s separation of powers. Well, these foundational pillars of our democracy are threatened by a new wave of extremism that wants to turn Helena into an outpost of Washington, D.C.
We see bills in the House (HB 464, sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls) and Senate (SB 302, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls) that either allow or require judicial candidates to declare their party loyalty on the ballot. SB 302 even allows political parties to help fund judicial campaigns. These changes could radically undermine the impartiality and independence of our justice system. If these bills pass, how can the public trust that our judges are loyal to the law and to justice as opposed to party bosses and political funders?
It doesn’t stop at the judiciary, either. SB 176, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell), would upend the equally bipartisan structure of Montana’s interim legislative committees, requiring instead a partisan majority. Even our local offices are not spared this move to make Montana a confederation of party hacks. SB 317, sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel (R-Billings), would require that city council candidates declare their “political faith or party affiliation” on the ballot.
Individually, these bills are disturbing. Taken as a whole, this effort to inject partisan polarization into every nook and cranny of civic life is dangerous. It’s up to everyday Montanans like us to put these bad ideas to rest and demand our legislators restore dignity to Montana’s body politic. We already killed SB 200, a bill that tried to introduce partisanship into nonpartisan races. Let’s do the same to these other bills. Call, email, and write your representative and tell them we don’t want Montana to emulate the dysfunctional partisan bickering of Washington, D.C.