BILLINGS — Bill D’Alton has not raised a dime in his bid for the Montana Supreme Court, but that’s intentional.
This election cycle, candidates squaring off in the premiere state Supreme Court race — which isn’t D’Alton’s contest — have raised more than a quarter million dollars and outside spending has pushed well past six figures. But the general practice attorney sees money in judicial races as a problem, not an asset, he said in a recent interview at his westside Billings law firm.
“I’m not taking a dime,” D’Alton said. “Why do people give money? Because they want something. I don’t think that’s good for the judicial system.”
Without statewide recognition or a campaign war chest, D’Alton has a big hurdle this election in overcoming incumbent Jim Rice, the state Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice. Neither Rice nor his challenger made a splash of their campaigns in the primary; with only two candidates, both were securely set to advance to the general election.
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Labor Day is seen as the unofficial kickoff for campaigns to ramp up for the general election in November. As of late August, D’Alton, 59, had so far worn down his shoe leather in knocking doors in Billings, but plans to touch down in Missoula, Great Falls and Helena in the near future.
D’Alton said abortion access is “by far” the No. 1 issue raised by people he’s met at their doorsteps. While judicial candidates are barred from commenting on how they would rule on a case, D’Alton said last week the state Supreme Court’s precedent preserving abortion access “is the law.”
D’Alton filed for the office the day before the deadline in the nonpartisan race. He saw Rice had no challenger in his re-election bid and, at least in part, wanted to ensure voters had a choice.
But D’Alton said his candidacy isn’t just a formality.
“I thought I could just bring a different view to how to judge cases up there rather than the view of certain justices now,” D’Alton said. “I’m not going to sit here and criticize them. I’m not going to do that. It’s just my philosophy would be different in protecting the rights of Montanans coming from a private practice.”
D’Alton has been practicing law in Montana for 27 years and has kept some of the same clients for decades. His current cases includes employment disputes, age discrimination, estates, and a couple DUIs. Originally from Connecticut, his first courtroom experience came as a public defender in Yellowstone County in the ’90s, before moving into civil practice and later opening his own firm in 2008.
D’Alton said he would push for better access to courts, which means advocating for more funding for more judges to process the docket that is spilling over in cities like Billings. He would also support eliminating immunity exemptions for police, prosecutors and public officials that he believes stops individuals from seeking accountability in areas like wrongful incarcerations.
Along with refusing money for his campaign, D’Alton’s pitch to potential voters includes another pledge: If elected, he would only sit on the bench for one eight-year term. He thinks it would be healthy to see some new thinking on the court every eight years and does not believe a court with such turnover would be any more inclined to disregard precedent.
“I think if you’re following the law, and you get the facts, the precedent is gonna stay safe and solid, if it’s strong,” he said.
On the matter of precedent, abortion access has the potential to be a driving factor in this year’s midterms, and Montana’s Supreme Court races are no exception.
While federal protections to abortion access were overturned with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision earlier this year, Montana’s 1999 decision by the state Supreme Court known as Armstrong provided a sturdier protection under the state Constitution’s right to privacy. The ruling is currently being challenged in the state’s Supreme Court by Republican officials.
D’Alton, adhering to the Judicial Code of Conduct’s rules barring candidates from commenting on how they may rule on any topic that may come before them, declined to say how he would decide in the case before the Montana Supreme Court. He did, however, offer his thoughts on the standing precedent.
“Armstrong is the law,” he said. “… So that is staying until something changes. I mean, I think (opponents to abortion access) would have to undo the Montana Constitution.
“But with that said, will I be up there and listen to the arguments objectively? Sure I will,” he added. “But we do have the Armstrong precedent.”
As the summer heat gives way to fall, the political implications of the other Supreme Court race, in which Justice Ingrid Gustafson seeks to fend off Republican Public Service Commission president James Brown, will likely continue to draw more attention than D’Alton’s bid against Rice.
D’Alton claimed 59,000 votes in the June primary to Rice’s 181,000. Nearly 15,000 people who cast votes in the Gustafson-Brown race didn’t even check a box in the Rice-D’Alton race.
But D’Alton said his campaign is just getting into mid-season form. Without fundraising, he has loaned his efforts more than $3,000, and one of two videos posted to Youtube this week had garnered more than 27,000 views.
“We can do a lot on social media without a lot of money,” he said. “I’m just out there meeting people, knocking on doors, going door to door. It’s tough work, but people appreciate it. So hopefully word of mouth just keeps going and going and going.”
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