Election Guide '22
The candidates and issues on Montana's 2022 ballot
Gustafson, 60, has served on the Montana Supreme Court since 2017, when she was appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. She won re-election in 2018.
Prior to joining the state’s high court, Gustafson served as a district court judge in Yellowstone County for 14 years, a position to which she was appointed by Republican Gov. Judy Martz in 2004. While on the bench in Yellowstone County, Gustafson started a felony drug treatment court and a pilot court to expedite and improve outcomes in child neglect cases.
Gustafson received her law degree from the University of Montana and was admitted to the State Bar of Montana in 1988.
This biography is based on campaign materials and interviews with Gustafson.
On the issues
I have 20 years of judicial experience—14 years as a District Court judge presiding over countless civil and criminal jury and bench trials, handling nearly 15,000 cases and 5 years on the Montana Supreme Court, participating in 1,100 opinions covering areas of law from city court appeals to constitutional challenges. I’ve been at the forefront of drug courts — starting two of Montana’s 36 drug courts including Billings’ first felony drug court which I presided over for nearly a decade. I’ve presented at state and national drug court conferences, written successful grant applications to fund drug courts, engaged in drug court peer reviews, served on the statewide drug court advisory committee, helped other judges establish drug courts and provided mentoring. I’ve also been at the forefront of child welfare work. I started and presided over a pilot child welfare court which significantly reduced terminations of parental rights and case processing times while maintaining child safety.
Since I’ve been on the Montana Supreme Court, the Court has had no backlog. Court performance surveys show “95% of the respondents” endorsed that “the Court completed its overall workload in a timely manner” with a 90% overall confidence rating. (Performance Measures, 11/2020.) We expect to be able to keep pace with filed appeals in the coming years.
Our district courts had statewide case clearance rates for 2021 of 99% and 98% through the first half of 2022. In all, district case filings have decreased since 2019. Despite this, workload studies identify a need for additional judges in some judicial districts. To add judges, the legislature must create these positions. The workload studies have been provided to the legislature along with requests to increase judicial positions. Although the legislature has not approved funding to meet the identified need, it is important to continue to monitor case filings and advocate for more judicial positions in districts showing the highest need.
This is a multi-faceted issue in which the judiciary can play a role in addressing. On behalf of the judicial branch, I served on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative which studied the impact of sentencing policies/practices, identified ways to safely reduce incarceration and promote evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, and considered disparities. From this, many legal changes were enacted but haven’t yet existed long enough to measure results. I am a member of the National Center for State Courts Judicial Evidence-Based Peer Group and MT’s Pretrial Advisory Committee. I’ve brought trainings to our judges on pretrial assessment and sentencing and am involved with a state pilot program to base pretrial release decisions on risk assessment. Finally, I served as our Court’s coordinating member for our recent racial equity study to investigate racial disparity across our criminal justice system, identify drivers of such, and make recommendations for the judiciary to address them.
In Montana’s Constitution the rights to participate and to know are complementary but work in concert with the right to privacy with none being absolute. The Montana Supreme Court has interpreted the balancing of these rights and has, given the significance of these rights, appropriately required balancing through fact-specific analysis of the interests to determine whether demands of individual privacy exceed the merits of public disclosure. For example, in Missoulian v. Brd. of Regents, the Court found public employees had a protected privacy interest in their performance reviews and then balanced such against the right to know, concluding privacy outweighed public disclosure. In Billings Gazette v. Billings, the Court further refined its interpretation of public employee privacy rights when addressing a request for the names of city workers disciplined for misconduct at work, again concluding privacy outweighed public disclosure as the employees did not hold positions of trust.
Contrary to a false narrative being promoted, Montanans have great trust in the work of Montana’s Supreme Court (MTSC). During my time on the MTSC, performance surveys show the Court earned a 90% approval rating for consistency, efficiency, and effective application of the law. The MTSC has constitutionally functioned as a check and balance to other government branches. A fair and independent judiciary is a cornerstone of democracy. To provide justice for all, maintain our rule of law, and assure our three branches of government work as our Constitution provides, judges must be able to act free of the pressures of partisan politics and other government branches. I am a Justice, not a politician, and I intend to continue to engender trust in and respect for our judicial system by continuing to be an impartial, independent jurist committed to upholding the unique rights of our Constitution, among them the right to privacy, public land and water access, and a clean and healthy environment.