‘Hear both sides’

Attorneys promote candidacy for judge of Montana’s 22nd District
Thursday, October 11, 2018

Photo by Andrew Turck
            Attorney Ray Kuntz (right) of Red Lodge, Mont. responds to a question during a candidate forum held the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 2 in the Hardin Historic Depot. He is running against Attorney Matt Wald (left) of Lodge Grass for the position of judge in Montana’s 22nd Judicial District.

Photo by Andrew Turck

Matt Wald speaks to Big Horn County residents on his “sense of justice” during the introduction portion of the Oct. 2 candidate forum.

A lawyer from Lodge Grass and another from Red Lodge, Montana met Tuesday, Oct. 2 in the Hardin Historic Depot to pitch their candidacies for the judgeship of Montana’s 22nd Judicial District. The former – Matt Wald – and the latter – Ray Kuntz – are the final two candidates set to be chosen in the Nov. 6 general election.

Either Wald or Kuntz will be replacing District Judge Blair Jones, who is set to retire after having served in the position since the 22nd Judicial District was founded in 1999. This district covers cases in Big Horn, Carbon and Stillwater counties – a total surface area of nearly 9,000 miles.

Wald earned his law degree from the University of Montana School of Law in 1993, and from there has represented clients throughout state, federal and tribal courts spanning south central and eastern Montana. He practiced law in Miles City from 1993 to 2000, when he returned to Lodge Grass to help out on his family ranch. Once he arrived, he began work as a law clerk for Jones, then returned to the practice in 2002.

As a result of his experience in law, Wald said, he’s learned to be less “black and white” and more able to assess people on a person-to-person basis.

“I know people a lot better than I used to and I think that’s very necessary for me to do this job,” he said. “The other thing I have is the ability to see both sides of the issue, cut to the crux, and find the…right answer.”

Kuntz earned his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1991, and then practiced in New York and New Mexico before he settled in Montana both to raise his children and be closer to his family. He has practiced in the 22nd District since 1997 and also served as Carbon County justice of the peace pro-tem from 2003-10. In addition, Kuntz served as a volunteer lawyer for the tribal wills project.

According to Kuntz, he brings to the table “experience, integrity and the willingness to do the work.” Like Wald, he said he had the ability to “hear both sides of a case” to make his final decision.

“This is a big district, it’s a big job,” he said. “Having the willingness to – every day – get up and do the work that’s required is important.

“Cases don’t get better by aging…people need to have matters decided in a timely fashion.”

Though Big Horn County Republican Central Committee was the organization who hosted the forum, the organizers stated in a Sept. 30 Facebook post that the candidates invited to attend were “non-partisan, neither Democrat nor Republican.” About 40 local residents came to watch the proceedings and sometimes ask questions of the candidates.

Following introductions, moderator Gabe Scheidt asked Wald and Kuntz to explain their judicial philosophies. Both specified they believed judicial rulings should be in accordance with the text of the U.S. Constitution. Wald was the first chosen to respond.

“I believe in original intent. I believe the Constitution has got to be the bedrock of any decision-making as a judge,” he said. “Without that bedrock, you’re just a person trying to be really wise and you’re not going to be wise every time...[Keeping to the text] is the only way you’re going to have consistent legal rulings and fairness for everybody.”

To summarize both candidates’ views, Kuntz used a quote from the Montana Code, stating their role was “not to insert what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.”

“I have a conservative judicial philosophy. I believe the fundamental purpose of the law is to make things right,” he said. “I believe a judge has to decide a case based not on views and preferences of the electorate, but on the facts and law of the case before him.”

Next, Kuntz and Wald spoke on Judge Jones’ legacy, along with what aspect of his style they wanted to continue. According to Kuntz, though every district court judge tries to get the technical details of the case correctly – “with varying degrees of success” – what most impressed him about Jones was his “judicial demeanor.”

“What truly is important is the demeanor and dignity with which you conduct the office, and the character with which you conduct the office,” Kuntz said.

Wald also was impressed by Jones’ demeanor, and intends to emulate his humility. The most problematic judges, Wald continued, were those who “let the robe get to their head.”

“You don’t become God because you get a black robe,” he said. “You’re a lawyer up there doing a different job.”

He didn’t always agree with Jones, Wald said, “but I never felt he tried to do anything but what was right.”

In regards to how they would deal with possible conflicts of interest, Kuntz said “the law requires recusal” if such an instance were to occur. Previous lawrelated jobs, he continued, don’t preclude one from sitting on the bench.

“Conflicts for a judge are fairly narrowly drawn by Montana law,” he said. “I have – we both have – dozens of cases going on right now; we can’t sit on those cases when we take the bench. A judge from Billings or another county will need to listen to them.”

Kuntz’s assessment of Wald might not have been correct, however, as Wald said he stopped taking Big Horn County cases in preparation for the possibility of his election.

“Starting this spring, I stopped taking work,” he said. “I have a few, with the intent to wean out as many [as I can].”

Despite the fact that he continues to ranch, Wald said, he understands that his duty as judge if elected will take the first priority. Though Kuntz lives more than 100 miles from Hardin, he said that he intends to hold service to Big Horn County at the same priority as his local Carbon County.

Both candidates came out in support of drug treatment centers if feasible and said, if called at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, they would – in general – be available to sign a search warrant.