McGrath top vote-getter in Montana's chief justice race

By Chris Rizo | Jun 3, 2008

Mike McGrath

Ron Waterman

HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline)-The votes cast Tuesday in the race for Montana state Supreme Court chief justice do little more than provide bragging rights to the top vote-getter.

That is because since there are only two candidates are running -- state Attorney General Mike McGrath and Helena trial lawyer Ron Waterman -- so both candidates will be on the November general election ballot.

McGrath captured 79 percent of the vote, while Waterman had 21 percent support, uofficial results posted on the secretary of state's Web site show.

McGrath and Waterman are seeking to succeed Chief Justice Karla Gray, who is not seeking re-election to another eight-year term.

McGrath, 59, is barred by term-limits from seeking a third term as attorney general.

He said his No. 1 priority as the state's top courts officer would be to ensure that opinions and rulings by the seven-member high court are issued in a timely fashion.

"I firmly believe that justice delayed is justice denied," McGrath said. "Moreover, court proceedings should be more accessible to the public."

Waterman, a 64-year-old private product liability and environmental attorney, says he is running for chief justice because Big Sky Country needs "an energetic, hardworking leader in the highest court in these critical, changing times."

The Montana Supreme Court is the only appellate court in the state, so lawsuits appealed in district courts could end up before the high court.

Early in the race, Waterman, who has not run for elected office before now, pledged not to accept campaign donations from political action committees.

He said accepting money from a group with a declared political purpose would be inconsistent with his belief that the courts should be free of political influence.

"One of the concerns I have is to make certain the court decides its cases on the facts and the law, not the politics," Waterman told Legal Newsline in an earlier interview.

"It seemed inconsistent to me to be taking PAC money and at the same time saying I want to keep politics out of the court," he added.

McGrath has been the state's chief legal officer since 2001. Before running for attorney general, he spent 18 years as Lewis and Clark county attorney.

As a Democratic attorney general, McGrath helped expand the state's consumer protection efforts and has worked to end the state's methamphetamine scourge.

Waterman is known as his leading role as the lead attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, a free service to Montanans denied access to public meeting, records and the courts.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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