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New law and one retirement places three municipal court judges on Missoula ballot

Missoula Municipal Court
Posted at 9:51 AM, Apr 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-21 11:51:34-04

MISSOULA — A bill signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte requiring elections for all municipal court judges will add roughly $50,000 in costs to the City of Missoula’s next budget, and possibly more.

It will also require the county’s elections administrator to prepare a ballot noting the newly created court vacancies ahead of the 2021 election in order to adhere to the new law.

Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said Missoula currently has one elected judge and two part-time assistant judges. In the past, Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks had the authority to appoint the two part-time judges.

But SB 127, signed by Gianforte, eliminates the ability of a municipal court judge to appoint part-time assistant judges. Missoula will make the part-time judges full-time and ensure the positions are on the ballot this year.

At the same time, Jenks is retiring, meaning Missoula voters will have to elect three municipal court judges. The filing period for candidates seeking a municipal position in Missoula – be it court or City Council – opens this week.

“These (appointed judge) positions must be replaced by an elected judge in approximately one year,” Bickell said. “The only municipal election in this time frame is the 2021 election.”

Bickell said state law doesn’t provide for special elections for elected officials like it does for ballot initiatives. Given the hurried deadline, the election administrator needs notification by the end of this week for any newly elected offices.

“The mayor must send a letter to the county election administrator regarding the city’s intend to create two new elected judge positions,” Bickell said. “The positions are recommended to be full-time to help address capacity issues at the court.”

Converting the two positions into full-time judges will cost around $50,000. But the city will likely incur other costs, including the required staffing and a third courtroom. The city has just two municipal court courtrooms.

“We operate two courtrooms full time right now,” said Jenks. “The assistant judges split that second courtroom. It’s not a great solution.”

Bickell said the city will look for space to house a third courtroom. The city and county are working on acquiring the downtown federal building to accommodate their spacial needs, but that’s still years away.

“We recognize the need to create additional courtroom space, and our plan was to do that in the federal building, but this is coming quicker than expected,” Bickell said. “Providing a third courtroom is going to be a challenge for us. That’s going to come at a cost, and with our future space needs, we’re going to have to do this twice.”

While the Legislature is requiring the new election of judges, it’s not providing any funding to cover the added costs.

“We’re going to be required to have those positions all be done by elections, which are expensive and there’s no additional funds in the passage of this bill to facilitate the changes the legislature is requiring of us,” said City Council member Stacey Aderson. “This will be the first of many times we’ll have to come together to change what we’re doing because of what the Legislature is doing this particular legislative session.”