HELENA — Starting next month, candidates will begin filing to become Lewis and Clark County’s second justice of the peace.
In November 2018, the Lewis and Clark County Commission agreed to create a second justice court, starting in 2021. The new judge will be elected in November 2020.
Mike Swingley, the county’s only current justice of the peace, said he had seen a need for an additional justice since shortly after he was first elected in 2010.
Swingley currently oversees the initial court appearances for all people charged with felonies – including setting their bonds – before their cases are transferred to district court. He also has full jurisdiction on all misdemeanor criminal charges in unincorporated areas of Lewis and Clark County. Finally, he handles civil court trials dealing with amounts up to $12,000 and small claims cases for up to $7,000.
“It’s more than just a judge,” he said. “For 99 percent of the public, this is the one court that they will come to in their lives for some small infraction. So I’m sort of the face of the judiciary for the average citizen in Lewis and Clark County.”
Swingley said, in recent years, his court’s caseload has been growing significantly, especially because of drug-related crimes. Since 2011, he estimates the court has handled about 60,000 filings. That can lead to a backlog – a particular issue since defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to a speedy trial.
“When we have so many cases and only so many calendar days in the year, obviously, when you do the math, it’s very difficult to get everything scheduled,” said Swingley.
Seven other large Montana counties – Yellowstone, Missoula, Gallatin, Flathead, Cascade, Ravalli and Silver Bow – already have two dedicated justices of the peace.
Lewis and Clark County leaders decided to start their new justice’s term in 2021 so that the two judges would be elected in different years. Swingley said that will allow some continuity as new judges take office. He said he and the new justice will work together with the Montana Judicial Branch to determine what the new court structure will look like.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I think that with another judge in here and a little lower caseload for each, we’ll be able to serve the public even more.”
The Lewis and Clark County Elections Office will begin accepting candidates for the new justice of the peace position on Jan. 9. Candidates must be over 18 and have lived in the county for at least a year, but they do not have to be attorneys. Swingley said whoever is elected will go through extensive training with Montana Supreme Court staff and have to pass a legal exam.
Swingley encouraged anyone interested in this type of position to consider running.
“It’s a very satisfying job,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to be here.”
Lewis and Clark County chief administrative officer Roger Baltz said adding a justice of the peace will cost the county about $173,000 a year – about $100,000 for the judge’s salary and benefits, $53,000 for administration and $20,000 for other costs.
One issue for a new justice court will be space. Helena city leaders say they are currently looking at the possibility of moving the Helena municipal court from the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse to the new Law and Justice Center. If that happens, Baltz said the second justice of the peace could take over that courtroom.