Don Harris has been named as the new district court judge for Yellowstone County.

Gov. Steve Bullock called the Billings lawyer around noon on Tuesday to tell him about the appointment to fill former Judge Russell Fagg’s vacated seat.

“Of course I said thank you, and I was honored to be appointed,” Harris said.

Harris called the appointment “a great challenge and a great honor,” and commended the strengths of other applicants. While he’ll miss his current law practice, Harris said he was eager to begin hearing cases.

“I really look forward to working with the other judges there,” Harris said. “We’re lucky to have great judges in Yellowstone County.”

Harris will have to run for election in 2018 to retain the seat. The position pays $132,567 a year.

Harris was one of three names forwarded to the governor earlier this month for consideration for the appointment. Fagg announced in June he would retire and is currently running as a Republican to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Harris is a partner with Harris, Gannet & Varela, PLLC. He received both his bachelor's of arts and juris doctorate degrees from the University of Montana and has practiced law in Yellowstone County since 1983.

Other finalists were Jessica Fehr, a defense attorney in medical malpractice and former assistant U.S. attorney, and Joe Raffiani, a criminal defense, personal injury and family law attorney, and former assistant attorney general for Montana.

Harris was widely seen as a favorite for the position. Along with Raffiani, he received unanimous support from Judicial Nomination Commission members at public interviews on Oct. 2.

“His application is the strongest and his interview was by far the strongest,” Karl Eglund, a JNC member from Missoula, said.

Harris said he doesn’t know when he’ll begin work, but will coordinate with the Montana Supreme Court to set a date.

Yellowstone County is home to the busiest district court in the state. Along with Harris’ seat, two additional judgeships will open for election in November 2018, with those judges taking office in January 2019.


Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.