Gov. Steve Bullock now has the names of five Billings attorneys from which to choose the next District Court judge for Yellowstone County.
The Judicial Nomination Commission fulfilled its duty in forwarding five nominees with unanimous agreement. But these appointed volunteers declined to provide Bullock with specific reasons for their recommendations that compare the qualifications of these applicants.
Moses stands out
However, in written applications and interviews the commission conducted Thursday in Billings, one of the five stands out: Mike Moses, a Billings attorney with 35 years’ experience. Moses is the only one who has substantial experience in criminal law.
Familiarity with criminal law is essential for judges in Montana’s busiest judicial district. Felony criminal case filings have increased 60 percent here in the past six years to 1,601 cases in 2013. The most recent assessment of statewide judicial workload concluded that Yellowstone County should have four additional judges to handle the cases in this district.
Criminal law experience isn’t the only reason to recommend Moses as the best applicant. His passion for the law and deep commitment to family and community was evident when he spoke to the commission. His qualifications are highlighted in dozens of letters of support the commission received from attorneys, clients and friends who agree that Moses would be an excellent judge.
“He has practiced in front of many of the judges in the state, has tried a lot of cases, and is much respected for his skill as a mediator,” wrote Martha Sheehy, a Billings attorney and past president of the Montana Bar. “But most importantly, Mike has spent the last three decades solving people’s legal problems.”
The Judicial Nomination Commission’s decision to eliminate the only other applicants well-versed in criminal law is a puzzler. Deputy county attorneys Rod Souza and Ed Zink were rejected for lack of civil law experience, yet the commission sent Bullock the names of four attorneys with little or no criminal law experience.
Ironically, Susan Watters, whose appointment to the federal bench created this vacancy, had been appointed state district judge after six years in the county attorney’s office and several more years doing criminal defense work in private practice.
Critical skills that Yellowstone County prosecutors learn include working hard and writing fast to manage heavy caseloads. Those are skills that our district judges need, too.
During the commission’s meeting last week, members and applicants repeatedly talked about needing a new judge who can hit the ground running.
Moses is the nominee who best fits that description. By law, Bullock has 30 days to appoint the new judge. We urge him to make his choice as soon as possible for this busy, shorthanded judicial district.