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Missoulian - McGrath Has Commanding Lead for Supreme Court

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Location: Helena, MT

Missoulian - McGrath Has Commanding Lead for Supreme Court

Jennifer McKee

Mike McGrath held an early, but commanding lead Tuesday night in the quiet race to be next chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

As of press time Tuesday, McGrath claimed 75 percent of the vote with 53 percent of 863 precincts reporting. He had 162,231 votes compared with 52,884 for challenger Ron Waterman.

Despite the 3-to-1 support for McGrath, the Associated Press had not yet called the race as of press time.
Still, both candidates seemed to acknowledge Tuesday night that McGrath was the likely winner.

Waterman called the evening a "historic night for America" and said he was proud to play his small part. He said he hoped that Montana's next chief justice would pursue the agenda he outlined in the campaign.

McGrath said the results were "great" and said his expected victory was "a new challenge, I greatly look forward to it."

"I've got some big shoes to fill with (retiring Chief) Justice (Karla) Gray, but I look forward to making the court more efficient and opening a new chapter in my life personally," he said.

Montana's judicial races are nonpartisan, which means neither candidate is associated with a political party.

The winner of last night's election will replace Gray, who did not seek another term.

McGrath, a two-term Democratic attorney general, came into the race with much more name recognition and seemed the favorite to win. Late in the campaign, an independent committee formed to criticize McGrath's record as Montana's top law enforcement officer.

That group, which called itself Montanans for Fairness not Politics, went after McGrath for the way he handled a trio of high-profile criminal justice cases in Montana, including criminal prosecutions potentially influenced by Montana's disgraced former forensic expert, Arnold Melnikoff.

Waterman represented three men exonerated after DNA evidence proved they could not have committed the crimes of which they had been found guilty.

Beyond those issues, the race tilted on openness and speeding up the high court's work. McGrath said he would try to tackle the court's lengthy backlog. Waterman pledged to open more of the court's now-secret proceedings.

Waterman, 64, has been a lawyer in Montana for 38 years, most of that at the established Helena firm where he is partner, Gough, Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman. He and his wife Mignon, a former Democratic state lawmaker, have two grown sons and two grandchildren.

McGrath, 61, has been a lawyer in Montana for 30 years. He served as Lewis and Clark County attorney for 18 years and as attorney general since 2001. He and his wife have two grown sons and one grandchild.

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