Yellowstone County Courthouse

Yellowstone County Courthouse.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Five applicants seeking to succeed District Court Judge Russell Fagg will make their case during public interviews in Billings on Oct. 2.

These applicants have all moved on to the next stage of the nomination process:

  • Brent Brooks, Billings city attorney.
  • Jessica Teresa Fehr, a defense attorney in medical malpractice and former assistant U.S. attorney.
  • Donald L. Harris, a personal injury and insurance attorney.
  • Jacquelyn Marjorie Hughes, a private attorney, contract public defender and judge pro tem in Billings Municipal Court.
  • Joseph Mathieu Raffiani, a criminal defense, personal injury and family law attorney.

Applicants who will not receive interviews are Bill Speare, a personal injury and medical malpractice attorney; and Yvette Lafrentz, a standing master in Montana’s 13th and 22nd judicial districts.

"We have excellent candidates for this position,” Fagg said. “I am very encouraged we will have a terrific judge to fill this spot."

Fagg, who retires Oct. 13, announced in June he is currently exploring a run in 2018 for Democrat Jon Tester’s U.S. Senate seat.

All candidates received positive recommendations, mostly from local private law firms. One negative comment was submitted for Brent Brooks by Billings resident Terry Houser, who said she believes Brooks has made “a lot of mistakes” as city attorney and does not follow the law or Montana Supreme Court rulings.

Speare received the other negative public comment. His, which came from attorney Michael Eiselein, said that Speare twice failed to produce documents according to the rules of discovery that Eiselein needed for two medical malpractice cases Speare was defending. In the complaint, Eiselein said that after requesting sanctions in one of the cases, the judge awarded Eiselein roughly $8,600 in attorneys fees. In the other case, a special master — Donald Harris, who will receive an interview for the 13th Judicial District judgeship — decided the discovery violation was egregious enough to recommend the judge in the case enter a judgment against Speare's client as a sanction. 

Lafrentz, the other applicant who won't move on, received just two positive recommendations. 

Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman and City Councilman Ryan Sullivan both wrote letters in support of Brent Brooks.

Two district court judges from Cascade County, Gregory Pinski and Elizabeth Best, wrote to support Donald Harris.

Harris received the most positive recommendations, at 37. Speare, who will not move on, was next with 25. 

Garfield County Commissioner Teddy Robertson supported Joe Raffiani, as did Chuck Tooley, former Billings mayor; Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings; Jim Elliot, former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party; and Scott McCulloch, of MEA-MFT, who worked with Raffiani in his role as School District 2 trustee.

The Montana Supreme Court’s Judicial Nomination Commission will send a list of three to five nominees to Gov. Steve Bullock by Oct. 8, after which the governor has 30 days to name a replacement.

The position pays $132,567 a year. Whoever is appointed to fill the seat must run to retain the position in the 2018 election.

Judicial appointments are advantageous because appointees get to skip the initial political campaign, which is expensive and time-consuming. At re-election time, incumbents rarely lose.

Two additional judgeships will be open for election in November 2018, with the judges taking office in January 2019. That’s after the Montana Legislature approved funding for the new judges in response to a major increase in cases in recent years.

With the busiest courtrooms in the state, Yellowstone County could use an additional seven judges, the National Center for State Courts has determined, but lawmakers approved only the two.

Judicial Nomination Commission members are District Court Judge John Brown of Bozeman; Janice Bishop of Missoula; Karl Englund of Missoula; Elizabeth Halverson of Billings; Hal Harper of Helena; Lane Larson of Billings; and Nancy Zadick of Great Falls.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.