Missoula county attorney weighs in on Libby judge's order


MISSOULA Mont., - Libby Judge James Wheelis warned Montana's Attorney General Tim Fox and 11 others he'd find them in contempt of court if they contact him outside the courtroom over his decision that Montana's Drunk Driving Prevention Program is unconstitutional.

Wheelis received a letter signed by Fox, prosecutors and law enforcement officials promoting the 24/7 Sobriety Program. It was sent after Wheelis' ruling in February that the 24/7 program is unconstitutional because defendants have to pay fines before being convicted.

NBC Montana asked Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg about the letter.

"I can certainly understand why the judge acted negatively to it," said Van Valkenburg.

Van Valkenburg thinks Fox and 11 othersshouldn't have sent the letter to Judge Wheelis. The letter talks about all the program's benefits and then it urges the judge to ask for additional information.

"Anyone in the legal business should have an understanding that most judges don't appreciate what is called 'ex parte contact' where one party in a lawsuit is trying to potentially influence the judge's decision and the party isn't present at the time,"said Van Valkenburg.

Van Valkenburg tells us the judge got the letter while he was presiding on a 24/7 sobriety case. He believes the group was trying to influence the judge.

Fox's spokesman, John Barnes, says the letter wasn't targeted at Wheelis, but went to many judges from around the state.

"So we don't feel the letter constituted any form of inappropriate contacts to the judge about a case, that's what I said, it was sent to a broad array of people by the Attorney General, as well as about a dozen other law enforcement officials in the state," says Barnes.

The program has been around since March 2010. Now we're waiting to hear if the supreme court thinks it's constitutional.

The 24/7 program is being used in four states including Montana, North and South Dakota and Washington State. It's also being used as a pilot program in Fremont County, Wyoming.