Montana Supreme Court challenger details stark differences with incumbent

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Lawrence VanDyke laments that voters often have no idea about judicial candidates when they go to the polling booth, and a major focus of his campaign for the Montana Supreme Court is to make sure voters know there are stark contrasts between himself and incumbent Justice Mike Wheat.

“I’m absolutely convinced there is a gigantic difference between the candidates in this race,” VanDyke said during an interview Friday.

One of the biggest differences is how VanDyke has maintained a “healthy distance” from politics, while Wheat has been heavily involved with Democratic politics and Montana trial lawyers.

VanDyke has never run for office before, has never donated to Republican or Democratic national committees, and has made only one political donation to Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, whom VanDyke worked for as the Montana Solicitor General from early 2013 up until a couple of months ago.

Wheat, on the other hand, served as a Democratic state senator, ran as a Democrat for attorney general and was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Wheat also has donated to Democratic candidates, even after taking the bench.

VanDyke, 41, said he has no problem with Wheat being a Democrat or even being active in Democratic politics.

“The issue is that he judges like a liberal Democrat, too,” said VanDyke, who regards Wheat as a “results-oriented judge” who picks the results he wants and then finds the reasons to support that result.

 Being able to set aside personal and political views is the most important qualification for a judge, VanDyke said, adding that he has that capability.

As solicitor general, VanDyke took cases to the high court, representing the state, and he said he was often frustrated because sometimes “it just felt some of these outcomes were predetermined” no matter what arguments VanDyke put forth.

Even worse, he alleged, some rulings were not adequately explained and justified. What it all that boils down to, VanDyke said, is that it makes the law “enormously unpredictable.”

VanDyke said that’s one reason why the Montana Chamber of Commerce endorsed him, and why the organization recently gave Wheat the lowest rating of any sitting Supreme Court justice.

“I don’t think anybody who follows our court thinks it’s a pro-business court,” he said.

VanDyke emphasizes that he’s not obligated to any political party or organization such as the Chamber, or Montana Trial Lawyers Association, which he describes as being one of the most politically influential organizations in the state.

“I have not promised anybody that I’m going to be a pro-business judge or that I’m going to be a conservative judge ... I’m going to be a fair and balanced judge,” said VanDyke, who graduated from Harvard Law School with honors before going into constitutional appellate law as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and Dallas, Texas.

He returned to Montana, his home state, with his wife and three children to work for Fox. Not long after he filed to run for the Supreme Court, his candidacy was legally challenged by five individuals that included two trial attorneys and was represented by two trial attorneys.

The original premise of their case was that a candidate for the Supreme Court must be actively practicing law for five years. The state Constitution does have a five-year “active practice requirement” for the office of attorney general, but not for Supreme Court justices, VanDyke said.

The plaintiffs later took a different legal tack and prevailed in District Court, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.

VanDyke said the litigation impacted his campaign’s fundraising abilities and momentum, and he believes that was the sole purpose of it.

“They knew just by suing me they would seriously cripple my campaign,” he said.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, VanDyke said he has nearly caught up with Wheat in terms of fundraising, but he thinks Wheat will eventually have lots of outside help. VanDyke anticipates that the trial attorneys will contribute heavily to Wheat’s campaign in the final weeks before the election.

“They have an outsized interest in who sits on the court ... they want bigger judgments,” VanDyke said, referring to trial attorneys.

More information about VanDyke and his campaign can be found at: http://vandykeforjustice.com

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

 

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