By Ron VandenBoom
Chris Tweeten, justice candidate for the Montana Supreme Court, told the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club Wednesday the current Supreme Court has failed in recent years to produce a consistent and predictable body of case law.
Tweeten explained that it is the responsibility of the high court to produce consistent and predictable case law so lawyers can give accurate advise to their clients.
This, he explained, was important because a lawyer needs to be able to know with certainty how a law is interpreted if they are to advise a business or individual on legal matters.
"This is one thing the court has not done a very good job of in the last few year," he said.
Tweeten told the crowd that in the last 10 years the court has overruled its prior decisions in almost 100 cases.
"In some of those cases it was clearly appropriate for the court to have done that," Tweeten said, explaining that some cases dealt with conflicting precedents where one or the other had to be established as the only legitimate precedent.
"But the vast majority of cases in which the court has overruled itself ... have not fallen into this category," Tweeten said. "Instead the members of the court simply changed their mind about what the law should be."
When asked about claims made by Terry Trieweiler, candidate for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, that the court had been striving to achieve consistency and has done a better job of housekeeping than previous courts, Tweeten vehemently disagreed.
"To claim that is to claim that every Montana Supreme Court prior to 1995 was terrible," Tweeten said. "I don't think that's the case at all ... I think we have had some tremendous Supreme Court justices."
Tweeten acknowledged that another reason the court has received so much negative notoriety in recent years is because of the initiative process.
The CI-75 initiative is an example, Tweeten said, of the type of controversy that can surround the court when it has to go against "the will of the people."
CI-75 required voter approval of all new taxes, tax increases, or fee increases. It was passed during the 1998 election and declared unconstitutional a few months later on the grounds that its wording would have changed at least three separate
parts of the Montana Constitution.
"Who-so-ever gets their ox gored by the initiative process is going to be turning to the courts for relief," Tweeten said.
The only way to combat the negative notoriety is to fully and better explain the decisions of the court and why it ruled the way it did, Tweeten said.
"Whoever the justices are, they need to be pretty thick skinned," he said, in recognizing the fact that it is not always a popular job.
"The court's fair game for discussion by the people of Montana," he said. "I don't think members of the court need to be protected from criticism from the people."
Tweeten has worked the last 9 years supervising court cases for the Attorney General's Office. He has been a trustee of the Montana State Bar Association since 1995 and led Montana's lawsuit against the tobacco companies for the Attorney General that resulted in more than $900 million in settlement money coming to the state.
Tweeten promised the Pachyderms that if elected he would stress the importance of adhering to precedence and the importance of providing a predictable body of case law to the people of Montana.