MISSOULA — A new law in place requiring an election for all municipal court judges has the City of Missoula racing to construct and open a third courtroom by a January deadline imposed by the Legislature.
The Legislature reserved no funding to cover expenses, leaving the city to fund the cost of courtroom design, construction, and operation, along with the election of the new judges.
Still, the city took the first step on Wednesday, approving a courtroom design contract with MacArthur, Means and Wells.
“We’re supposed to have something in place by January, and we’ve got a rough design option now,” said Matt Lawson, the city’s facilities manager. “We’re going to try to figure out a way to use the existing space we have in courts now, and move staff to other adjoining lease spaces.”
Montana law now requires an election for all municipal court judges. It also requires the elections administrator to prepare a ballot noting the newly created court vacancies ahead of the 2021 election.
Missoula currently has one elected judge and two part-time assistant judges. In the past, the one elected judge had the authority to appoint the two part-time judges.
But the new law eliminates the ability of a municipal court judge to appoint part-time assistant judges. The two part-time judges in Missoula will become full-time judges, requiring a third courtroom.
Finding a location for another courtroom has added another challenge to the mix. The city and county are both facing spatial needs and plan to move into the downtown federal building as a result. But that move is still years away and adding a third courtroom is seen as what Lawson described as a “stop-gap measure.”
“It’s not going to be a permanent solution,” he said. “We don’t have the space to come with a more permanent solution to court size. This would be something to get us through the next five years until hopefully, the federal building comes online, which would allow for more court space.”
Converting the two part-time judges to full-time judges will cost around $50,000. But the city will likely incur other costs, including the required staffing and the third courtroom.
A design is needed to understand the full cost of a third courtroom, and Lawson said MacArthur, Means and Wells has worked with the city before.
“They worked with us in the previous City Hall remodel and our space needs analysis,” Lawson said. “We have current up-to-date drawings for all our facilities already in place for them. It should save us quite a bit of time and money by the time the project is finished.”