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Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson makes campaign appearance in Polson

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POLSON — A sizeable showing of Lake County’s legal community, along with around 30 interested voters, showed up at Glacier Brewing in Polson last Thursday to hear from state Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson. The incumbent is seeking to hold on to her post on the high court in a race against Helena attorney James Brown, who currently chairs the Public Service Commission. 

Local attorney Kiel Duckworth introduced Gustafson on behalf of retired Lake County District Court Judge Jim Manley, who was unable to attend.  

In his remarks, Duckworth warned that the nonpartisan race was turning increasingly partisan and predicted a flurry of attack ads on the part of Gustafson’s opponent prior to November’s election. 

“The job of being a judge is not about politics,” he said. “Yet I think we’re going to see a lot of that in this race.”

It was a concern that Gustafson echoed. 

“I’d like to think this race isn’t about politics because I’m not a politician and I never have been,” she said. “I don’t decide cases based on whether you’re in a particular political party. I think that would be judicial malpractice.” 

Her judicial philosophy is straightforward: “I think a judge should approach each case and see what the facts are, what the law is, what the issues and arguments before the court are, and make decisions based on the law and the constitution.” 

Gustafson was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2017 by Gov. Steve Bullock and was elected to retain the seat in 2018. She came to the court with considerable experience, having spent 16 years in private practice before Gov. Judy Martz appointed her to fill a district court vacancy in Yellowstone County, Montana’s largest and busiest judicial district. She held that seat for 14 years, winning three elections.

In 2011, she launched the county’s first felony drug court – an innovative approach to helping people with addiction-related convictions enter recovery and build more successful, productive lives. She’s written three grants to start drug courts and has helped other judges – including Manley – develop these courts across the state. 

“When I decided we needed a drug court, I didn’t know even how to start,” Manley wrote in comments delivered by Duckworth. “I searched around and found out that the best drug court in the state was Judge Gustafson’s, so I took a group out there and we attended her court, and she opened everything to us, and then mentored us ever after … Some of the credit for the positive things we’ve achieved here belongs to her.”

During her time as a district judge, Gustafson also spearheaded a pilot court to help reunify families and reduce the time children were spending in the foster care system. 

“We’ve taken a lot of those pilot practices and spread them across our state and we are seeing huge reductions in the number of kids in foster care,” she said. The programs have helped train judges who preside over child welfare cases, save taxpayer money and enable more children to safely return to their parents, she added. 

Gustafson views her experience as a district court judge as invaluable preparation for serving on the Supreme Court. “I’ve spent my career trying to apply the law and our constitution in a fair and impartial manner,” she said. “I’ve worked very hard over time to improve the lives of children and families.”

On a more lighthearted note, Gustafson took credit for being both a Bobcat and a Grizzly. She graduated from Montana State University where, she jokes, “I majored in ski racing and picked up a business degree on the side.” Her four years on the varsity alpine ski racing team earned her an NCAA All-American title and membership in the MSU Hall of Fame.

On the Grizzly end of the equation, she received her law degree from the University of Montana. “There’s a place in my heart for public education and state colleges,” she said. “They did a good job for me.”

She and her husband of 35 years have two children – one a major in the U.S. Air Force and the other an elementary school teacher. 

Although she ducks the partisanship that’s been introduced into the race, with top Republican officials endorsing Brown, Gustafson doesn’t hesitate to compare her record with that of her opponent. 

“By the time I practiced law for 16 years and then took the bench my opponent had not graduated from law school yet,” she told the audience. “At district court, I’ve handled about 15,000 cases and another almost 1,100 at the Supreme Court. In that time, my opponent as appeared in state district court 74 times and has handled just a handful of things before our court, mostly writ issues.” 

She’s past president of the Montana Judges Association and has served on the Montana Commission on Sentencing, as well as several other statewide legal committees and organizations, and is widely regarded as an expert in the drug-court model.

“It’s going to take him over a decade to catch up,” she said of Brown.

After her talk, a member of the audience told Gustafson that her daughter supports the incumbent and has encouraged her mom to do the same. 

“Your daughter’s right,” said Gustafson, smiling. “I’ve just been doing this a long time. I feel like I’ve got to trust people to listen to me and evaluate my qualifications. And I’m hopeful that they will return me to keep serving Montanans.”

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