HELENA — In a historic moment for the animal kingdom, a grizzly bear was appointed to the Montana Supreme Court.
Baxter, chosen by Governor Brian Schweitzer to fill in an interim position left open by a recent vacancy, previously made his home in the mountains northeast of Kalispell where he foraged for food to carry him over previous winters. As the first animal, let alone bear, serving as a judge at any state or federal level, the decision earned accolades from those pushing to extend animal rights to the highest levels of government.
While general consensus favors the decision to appoint an animal, opinions over the Governor’s choice are mixed. Political opponents called Gov. Schweitzer’s appointment of a member of the Montana State Animal species to be populist pandering. Republican leader and Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Milburn noted that the Republican dominated state legislature preferred the selection of Pokey the Pachyderm, an elephant from ZooMontana in Billings or, at the very least, a bald eagle.
Justice Baxter arrival at the Justice Building in Helena received particular attention from interest groups, all curious about the potential opinions of the fifteen year old member of ursus arctos horribilis.
Environment groups see Justice Baxter as a new ally in cases involving conservation issues. A spokesperson for the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club voiced cautious optimism for the new Justice: “While we do not have a track record with which to gauge the views of Justice Baxter, we feel that the new appointee will do his best to ensure that our nation’s environment and his home are not tarnished by excessive pollution and abuse of our state’s environmental laws.”
While most animal rights groups are ecstatic for the new Justice, one notable hiccup came from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which pulled its support for after video emerged of him devouring several trout from a local stream.
Thus far, the most vociferous opposition comes from the Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), the state’s primary political advocate for gun owners, who feel that the appointment will threaten hunter’s rights. Although it is illegal to hunt grizzly bears in Montana, the organization feels that Justice Baxter would find it easy to extend protections to black bears and possibly other woodland creatures. A persistent rumor being spread by email among MSSA members claims that Justice Baxter is a communist and wants to limit bear hunting to a “knife vs. claw” fight; independent investigation has found no corroboration for any of these claims.
Justice Baxter’s opinions on these issues will need to wait, however, as the first wave of cases on the Supreme Court’s docket address the more mundane topics of whether or not the employment records of an individual, who is a governmental employee, are protected under the Montana Constitution and the statute of limitations for property damage claims.
James K. Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of Montana School of Law, feels the appointment is an opportunity for the state’s jurisprudence to make a national impact.
“Justice Baxter offers a chance to show Montana’s pioneer nature,” noted Prof. Johnson, “We sent the first woman to Congress, and I’m sure other judges around the nation will review decisions made by Baxter and consider applying them in their own courts.”