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Missoula, Bozeman approve hiring full-time judges after mandate from legislature

(Photo: NBC Montana)
(Photo: NBC Montana)
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Missoula and Bozeman are taking action after the governor signed Senate Bill 127 in April, an unfunded mandate cutting all part-time assistant judges in municipal court.

Many judges appoint a part-time assistant judge to help with their caseload, and assistant judges pack the full weight of an elected judge. That means they, as an appointed official, could put someone away for up to a year. That didn’t sit right with Montana legislators.

Legislators argue that if a judge is needed, they should be elected by the people. That’s why Missoula is adding two full-time elected judges, and Bozeman is adding one.

In a final hearing Monday night, Missoula City Council passed the ordinance creating three total full-time judges.

"I am very comfortable going to three judges at this point in time, because I want the judges to be able to spend time reading the files prior to ruling on motions, prior to hearing cases and have that breathing room to also confer with one another to set this up to be an efficient effective court,” said ward 3 council member Gwen Jones.

In Missoula and Bozeman, officials say adding more full-time judges works out since their caseloads are growing.

We wanted to know why courts couldn’t replace part-time appointed assistant judges with part-time elected assistant judges. Turns out, it’s because the bill strikes all language that mentions part-time judges. City courts say they’re operating under the assumption no part-time judges are allowed.

Full-time judges will cost taxpayers an estimated $200,000 in Bozeman and $50,000 or more in Missoula. That’s for the judges, additional staffing and courtrooms.

Many courts say they couldn’t offer good service if they simply cut their part-time judges.

Missoula Judge Kathleen Jenks wrote a letter to the city saying cutting judges to two would mostly impact people with traffic and other tickets, because criminal cases would continue to take up the largest part of the court’s time, even with fewer judges.

You can read her full letter here.

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