An Interview with Judge Nels Swandal
His Supreme Court Bid, the Tea Party, and the Bresnan Snafu
BY PAT HILL
Judge Nels Swandal has a conser-vative stance regarding the law and the Constitution that is rooted in the soil of the Shields Valley country he grew up in and now serves. The 57-year-old Swandal, Montana's 6th Judicial District Judge, made an unsuccessful bid for the Montana Supreme Court last November, losing the race to attorney Beth Baker of Helena.
“Obviously you're somewhat disappointed, but it was an interesting experience and I met a lot of great people,” Swandal told the Pioneer. “I learned a lot about myself, and the process. The worst part of the campaign was trying to raise money.” Swandal and Baker made the run for the Supreme Court slot after Justice William Leapheart decided to retire after 16 years on the high court bench.
“It's a different type of election,” Swandal said of the Supreme Court race. “It's hard to get anyone to state their opinion on an issue. And we had a problem with Bresnan…our message didn't get out because no ads ran the last two weeks of the campaign.“ Swandal said that Baker's ads did run on the Bresnan cable television provider networks, however.
“They [Bresnan] said it was just a mistake,” said Swandal, “and we haven't really looked into it in depth yet…and I can't really comment on it yet. We've requested some documents from them but they haven't been forthcoming yet.”
Both Swandal and Baker received political backing in the race that crossed party lines. Baker, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, got her law degree at the University of Montana, as did Swandal. She worked as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, and then joined the Montana State Justice Department, working for Montana attorneys general Marc Racicot (a Republican) and Democrat Joe Mazurek. She was working as the state's chief deputy attorney general when she went into private practice in Helena in 2000, where she specialized in defending individuals and businesses in civil suits. The Associated Press reported in February of last year that Baker said she ran for the seat on behalf of “people who do not understand their legal rights and have no idea where to turn, because they can't afford an attorney.”
“As a justice on Montana’s highest court, I will continue my work to make equality under the law a reality,” Baker told the AP. She won the run for the Supreme Court seat with just over 52 percent of the vote.
“A conservative voice would've really helped on that Court,” said Swandal, “and somebody with judicial experience…there's no one on that [Montana Supreme] Court that's been a judge before. Somebody with a lot of trial experi-ence…someone with a rural background from a rural area…all that.”
Swandal said the term conservative as it applies to him means that he supports individual, privacy, and property rights, and that Montana's Constitution defends those rights. And Swandal certainly has the rural background covered, and the trial experience to boot. He is a fourth-generation Montanan whose family is well-known in the Shields Valley; five Svandal brothers (including the patriarch Nels) first immigrated to America in 1909 from Svandal, Norway, and began ranching in the Shields Valley. That legacy continues to this day. The work ethic needed to have a successful ranching operation over the decades is not lost on Swandal, who worked at the family ranch when he wasn't in school, even working the summer after he graduated from law school at the University of Montana in 1978.
Swandal was also working as a lawyer at his mother Bonnie's law firm that summer after graduation. With the Swandal fortitude that helped found a successful ranching enterprise, Bonnie Swandal had pioneered her way into law in 1967. After devoting countless hours of study to the task, she passed the Montana Bar Exam even though she had never attended college or law school, which were not prerequisites for the Montana Bar Exam at the time (Interestingly, the Bar Exam was not required of Nels Swandal when he graduated from law school).
Swandal served in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps from 1978-81 in Fort Ord, California.
“I loved my time in the Army,” said Swandal. “I would not discourage anyone from the military. I got a lot of trial work, a lot of experience, right out of law school, that I would have never gotten anywhere else.”
After his active-duty Army service, Swandal returned to southwest Montana, and was elected to serve as Park County Attorney in 1983. He was elected to his current position in 1994, and Swandal will continue to act as the state's 6th Judicial District Judge until the end of 2012. Swandal said he will not be running for re-election to that post and has no firm plans for the future, but added that he is “not retiring.”
“Frankly, I'm too young [to retire]…and I don't know if you should ever really retire,” said Swandal. “But I am a firm believer in term limits, even for judges…and if you can't be true to yourself, you can't be true to anybody. And while change isn't always good, nobody's indispen-sable. Different perspectives and new ideas help…change can be beneficial.” But Swandal also said change in the makeup of the judiciary doesn't mean change in policy.
“My duties [as a District Judge] are set forth in the constitution as a statute,“ said Swandal. “You don't legislate from the bench…you take the law as you find it, even though you may not agree with it…and certainly there are times that I don't. But it's not my job to make the laws.” Swandal did say that common sense and life experiences do contribute to the process.
“I've found that the most effective way of being a judge is…you don't judge anybody,” Swandal said. “You haven't been in their shoes, you don't know where they came from, or what their background is. You just look at the facts and the law and make your decision. Personality never comes into play…politics never come into play. If I know somebody too closely I just recuse myself from that case.”
Swandal said that an understan-ding of the Constitution is also crucial for a judge or any other person elected to office in the United States, and he does his part to pass knowledge about the Constitution along. Swandal's favorite vehicle for educating fellow elected officials is The 5,000-Year Leap; A Miracle That Changed the World, written by W. Cleon Skousen and published in 1981 by the National Center for Constitutional Studies. Skousen writes that the founding fathers used “28 fundamental beliefs to create a society based on morality, faith, and ethics that resulted in more progress being made in the last 200 years than in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined.” Swandal said he has given copies of the book to elected officials in Liv-ingston, Big Timber, and White Sulphur Springs.
“Elected officials ought to know what the Constitution says…what the intent of our founders was,“ said Swandal. “For an understanding of the Constitution, it's a very easy read…I think everybody should read it. And you're sworn as an elected official to uphold the Constitution, so you ought to know what it is.” Skousen has been dubbed a right-wing nut in left-wing circles, and some of the claims he puts forth as fact in his book have been scoffed at, but The 5,000-Year Leap; A Miracle That Changed the World is rooted in the writings of the founders and a top seller on Amazon.com. The right-leaning political commentator Glenn Beck has cited the book as being the most influential in the development of his political beliefs.
Swandal said he has “no problem” being linked to the Tea Party movement as a result of his book-sharing efforts.
“No…I don't agree with everything, whether its from the Tea Party, the Democrats, or the Repub-licans,” said Swandal. “But I have no problem being associated with the Tea Party at all. Certainly I don't agree with everything they stand for, and certain members, but the emphasis on personal responsibility, controlled government, and controlled spending…I firmly believe in.” Swandal also said he believes the electorate should retain the right to elect their judges.
“I know there's a push to take away the right of the people to elect their judges,“ said Swandal. “I don't think that's a good idea…at all…I think the people ought to have a say, especially at the local level.”