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Issue Position: Judge Laurie McKinnon Discusses Montana Judicial Canons

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Canon 1: Independence, integrity, and impartiality of the Judiciary.

In order to maintain a civil and law-abiding society, it is essential that the public knows laws enacted by its legislature are being enforced fairly, equitably, and without a hidden bias or personal agenda of their judges. The individual looks to a judge as the last protector of his or her rights. We must have confidence that our judges act impartially in following the rule of law.

As a judge, I have made many difficult decisions that have affected the lives of persons coming before me. I have found that people accept my decision -- even if it is not the one they want -- when I have listened and considered their position fairly and impartially. I always explain to the parties, without legalese, the factors that have gone into my decision. In this manner they will know the justice process has worked, regardless of outcome. This explanation serves to increase the public's confidence in the judiciary, its integrity and its fairness.

Canon 2: A judge must act impartially, competently, and diligently.

Every time I put on my black robe before taking the bench, I am reminded of the awesome authority a judge has. It is truly an honor that I was elected by the people to wear my robe. The minute a judge no longer has empathy and understanding for the people standing before him or her, they are at risk of abusing their authority and eroding public trust in the judiciary.

In performing the duties of a judicial office, a judge must manage the court's docket so that decisions are made diligently and competently. This is a challenge when one has 1,100 cases a year and drives over 25,000 miles to cover a 10,000 sq. mi. district. Management of the court's calendar and docket is one of the most difficult aspects of a judge's job. Nevertheless, it is an intricate part of how court services reach the public and it shapes public perception of the court's legitimacy.

As a judge, I am responsible for protecting the courts as an institution of the people. By insisting on proper decorum and courteous and dignified proceedings, I protect public expectations in the judiciary. I understand that I set the bar for what behavior is expected of counsel and litigants -- and that I lead by my example. My opinions must be well-written. My beliefs must be well-founded. My judgment must be based on the Constitution.

Canon 3: A judge shall conduct the judge's personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.

Being a judge also carries a personal burden -- not only for the judge, but for the judge's family. In the interest of fairness, my family and I have had to remove ourselves from activities which might even slightly appear to compromise my neutrality.

I simply cannot be an advocate for a particular cause. I cannot participate in political organizations, political events, controversial issues, community disputes, school disputes, or even converse with friends about these matters. In a small community there isn't much left but sports.

However, even sports can present conflicts of interest. I recall a case when I had to decide on the eligibility criteria of a Power basketball player two weeks before district tournaments. I learned the morning of the hearing (at breakfast) that my son had once played basketball with one of the parties in an out-of-state tournament. I quickly made my disclosure to the attorneys. While both sides were comfortable with my impartiality, it demonstrates how a perceived bias can come from the most unexpected directions.

An experienced judge understands that taking a position on an issue could bring into question these notions of impropriety. An experienced judge knows the dangers that being an advocate for a position can hold for the judiciary. Lawyers who have had years of practice normally become specialized in an area of law and aligned with a particular interest -- simply because they have represented that same interest consistently over the years. However, it is very important that a judge and a judicial candidate not make statements or take positions on issues which could present a conflict in cases eventually coming before the Supreme Court. The public has a right to demand this neutrality.

Canon 4: A judge shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

It is difficult to run for a nonpartisan state office while carefully navigating the more established partisan political landscape. To be an effective judge (and one that the public perceives is fair and impartial), I have chosen not to contribute to any political party or in any way become involved in politics during my tenure as a judge. I have never expressed a political position during my six-year terms in office, nor aligned myself with a political party, candidate or organization. I believe strongly that a political agenda has no place on our highest court.

This Rule is at the heart of Montana's democracy and principal of separation of powers. A judge with a political agenda violates our democratic principles by legislating from the bench. A judge who participates in political activity, jeopardizes an independent and impartial decision. This failing then undermines public confidence in the judiciary and the integrity of the justice system.

Taking positions on political issues during a judicial campaign is similar to asking a juror to vote during the opening statements of a trial. It asks a person to pre-judge and go on the record with a point of view prior to hearing all of the facts. With regards to impartiality, a judge is no different than a juror. We judicial candidates cannot -- and should not -- participate in partisan activity while on the campaign trail or in office. This will protect us, the people and our justice system.

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