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Other than Being Unqualified, Inexperienced, and Unmotivated, Lawrence VanDyke Would Make an Excellent Supreme Court Justice

If elected to the Montana Supreme Court, Lawrence VanDyke would be the least experienced and least qualified member of the Montana Supreme Court in my lifetime, if not all of Montana’s history. He’s barely practiced law in the state, acknowledged himself that he’s not experienced in the issues that face the Court, and seen by former co-workers as wholly unready for the job. The choice in this race is absolutely clear: Mike Wheat, an experienced, rational jurist who serves the law and the people of Montana, not some 1800s notion of the national Constitution that ignores our state’s progressive, nation-best Constitution.

VanDyke is Unqualified

The members of the court VanDyke hopes to sit on doesn’t seem terribly convinced he’s qualified to do so—and the law makes it clear he never should have been allowed to run in the first place. Even including his undistinguished career at the state Attorney General’s office, VanDyke has practiced law in Montana for a few years, short of the five required by the law.

VanDyke seems to believe that the role of a Supreme Court justice is to dispense constitutional wisdom from below his altars to John Marshall and Antonin Scalia, but the truth is far more mundane. Supreme Court cases involve complex water rights issues, police discovery questions, intricate property disputes—all the elements of Montana law one could only become familiar with through practice in the state.

In his case, law “practice” will be exactly what he’s doing, because he lacks the knowlege necessary to be the kind of expert the law demands. A collection of former Montana Supreme Court Justices made that point in an unprecedented joint letter  saying that VanDyke is an unqualified pawn of corporate interests.

He is Inexperienced

If you aren’t sure if Mr. VanDyke has the experience to sit on Montana’s highest court, just ask him. He’s already said he doesn’t.  On January 23, he told the staff at the Montana Attorney General’s office just that, writing that “he  wanted off the same-sex benefits case in part because he has little experience or expertise in matters such as discovery issues, dealing with experts, stipulations and conferring with opposing counsel.”

Those are, of course, exactly the kinds of questions the Supreme Court wrestles with in almost every decision. VanDyke suggested that his experience as a self-described constitutional expert would somehow compensate for this inexperience, but a Lee Newspapers analysis found that constitutional challenges were at issue in 34 cases in the last 6,600 to come before the Court.

He’s Unmotivated

While VanDyke certainly seems to have a surfeit of personal motivation, he’s not much of a worker. In fact, his colleagues (and supervisors) at the Attorney General’s office confirm that he avoided work—and even learning how to perform the work of a lawyer:

Another email from Black to his bosses accused VanDyke of avoiding work and not having the skills to perform or desire to learn how to perform the work of a lawyer. Attorney general chief of staff Scott Darkenwald told Black in the email chain that “your frustration does not exceed ours.”

Montana certainly doesn’t need a Supreme Court justice without the work ethic necessary to do the job.

He’s Also Badly Out of Touch with Montanans and the Law

VanDyke has a collection of personal beliefs that will almost certainly interfere with his ability to decide cases fairly, or even rationally. Consider:

As Ed Kemmick notes in his column today about the race, what little time VanDyke did spend working at the Attorney General’s office was spent writing amicus briefs in support of hard-right social positions on abortion and gay rights.

Judicial Seats for Sale

So why are out of state groups trying to buy this election? Because the nexus of conservative and corporate groups that are trying to buy American democracy have discovered that buying Supreme Court seats is a far less expensive proposition than buying governors’ offices or legislative seats. Given the low-level press coverage of Court races and the general reticence of most candidates (VanDyke excepted) to run negative ads, an out of state negative campaign drop can be very effective.

Truthout explains the strategy:

“It’s a conscious campaign to shift the ideological direction of the courts,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending in judicial elections. Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their high-court justices. Many began doing so out of concern that executive appointments lacked transparency, but with campaign finance rules increasingly lax, it’s no longer clear that elections are a better mechanism. “We’re seeing money and special-interest influence playing a larger role in these races,” Bannon said. “It’s raising real concerns about whether judicial elections are fulfilling that role of ensuring meaningful accountability and independence for our courts.”

And that’s precisely what’s happening in Montana.  The Koch-funded trolls at Americans for Prosperity-Montana are running ads critical of Justice Wheat and supporting VanDyke, and despite VanDyke’s terribly convincing claims that he’s non-partisan, the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Montana PAC bought $100,000 worth of air time to attack Justice Wheat for him.

Another group, Montanans for a Fair Judiciary is also running a campaign in favor of VanDyke. Their leader, described by the Missoulian somewhat incompletely  as “a Republican consultant”? Jake Eaton. Who’s Jake Eaton? A specialist in Montana dark money operations, a Rehberg drone, supporter of disenfrachising  ontana veterans, students, and American Indians, and the former freakin’ executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

So, if you want an unqualified, unmotivated reactionary who’s got the support of people like the Koch Brothers and Jake Eaton, Lawrence VanDyke is your candidate.

It’s bad enough that the U.S. Supreme Court has foisted Citizens United on Montanans, turning our races into opportunities for corporations to buy influence and friendly officeholders, but it would be far worse to let these corporation buy a seat on our state Supreme Court, especially when their candidate is a supporter of those bad decisions.

Vote for Justice Wheat. Educate Your Friends

I know Supreme Court races don’t get the attention they deserve—and candidates like Justice Wheat have the integrity not to rely on misleading attack ads to win elections, but please pay attention to this race. Just a little research (the kind of work Lawrence VanDyke is apparently unwilling to do) will make it clear that we need to send Justice Wheat back to the Court.


If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • The right-wing oligarchs who are dumping millions on dollars into Montana’s elections are operating under the misconception that we’re a bunch of rubes like those easily influenced voters (and bought-off leaders) of Texas or Louisiana.
    But as the overwhelming Montana sentiment against the Citizens United decision shows, we remember our history. We remember the yoke made of copper. The difference now is that much of the money being spent originates outside the United States.
    Fool me one, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

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