Koch Group Jumps Into Montana Supreme Court Race

Justice Mike Wheat called the Koch ad “garbage” and said it has little or nothing to do with the type of a justice he’s been or will be.

The American Constitution Society has just released a big report on the effects of post-Citizens United spending on judicial elections, specifically finding that judges who survive expensive, ad-heavy elections are “less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants.”

As it happens, an example of what happens when big outside spending groups take an interest in state judicial elections is unfolding right now in Montana.

We’ve been following how Religious Right and pro-corporate groups have been getting involved in a Montana state supreme court race, in which a former solicitor general with a right-wing record is trying to topple a sitting justice and flip the ideological balance of the court.

Last month, the anti-gay, anti-choice  Family Research Council raised money for challenger Lawrence VanDyke at a Values Voter Summit fundraiser. A couple of weeks later, a Montana offshoot of the Republican State Leadership Committee — an outside spending group bankrolled by corporations including the Reynolds tobacco company and Koch Industries dropped $110,000 on TV ads attacking VanDyke’s opponent, Justice Mike Wheat.

And now, according to the Missoulan, not only has the RSLC now spent $330,000 supporting VanDyke’s candidacy, but it has been joined in the fight by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that has since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision spent millions of dollars to influence elections.

AFP is spending $85,000 running ads that accuse Wheat of being an “extreme” partisan…citing his votes on bipartisan bills as a state legislator. In an interview with the Missoulan, Wheat called the ads “garbage”:

The ads say Wheat, a justice on Montana’s high court since 2010, “has a history of supporting extreme, partisan measures,” citing his votes as a state senator for a 2003 sales tax package and for an increase in hunting and fishing license fees in 2005, and his 2012 dissent in a Supreme Court ruling upholding natural gas well permits.

“Our (intent) is to educate voters on the positions that Mike Wheat has taken in the past and hold him accountable for those positions,” Lahn said.

Wheat, in an interview, called the ad “garbage” and said it has little or nothing to do with the type of a justice he’s been or will be.

The ad sponsor “is just one of the Super-PACs funded by the Koch Brothers, who want you to believe it’s only for `educational’ purposes,” Wheat said. “It’s not education at all; it’s pure politics.”

In addition to $275,000 combined that Wheat and VanDyke have reported raising for their campaigns, the race has seen spending now by four outside groups, including AFP-Montana.

Two other groups are supporting VanDyke, including the Republican State Leadership Committee, which reported Thursday it’s spent $330,000 on TV ads and mailers, and one group is supporting Wheat.

Lahn said AFP-Montana initially is spending $85,000 for its ads criticizing Wheat.

...

The AFP ad says Montanans “deserve a fair and impartial Supreme Court” and urge voters to call Wheat “and tell him to keep his extreme politics out of the Montana Supreme Court.”

Among other things, the ad refers to Wheat’s 2003 vote as a senator for a sales tax package that also reduced property and income taxes, and his 2005 vote for a bill increasing hunting and fishing license fees.

The sales tax measure passed the Senate with bipartisan support but died in the House; the hunting and fishing license bill passed with bipartisan support.

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