Montana lost a pioneering attorney and jurist last week. Diane Barz, 70, died after battling cancer for nearly eight years.
Her legal career was a series of firsts: In 1968, she was the only women in her graduating class at the University of Montana Law School. She then became the first woman to clerk for the Montana Supreme Court. Moving to Billings, she became the first female deputy county attorney. With Doris Poppler, she founded the first all-female law firm.
Diane Barz became Montana’s first female District Court judge in 1979 after garnering lopsided wins against five male candidates in the 1978 primary and one man in the General Election. She took the newly created seat of fourth judge in a district that included Yellowstone and four other counties back then.
Even before her election, Judge Barz was active in community efforts promote good mental health and to help troubled children. She served on the Mental Health Center board and helped the Junior League start the Tumbleweed Runaway program.
As judge, she quickly moved forward with establishing the Youth Court Conference Committee to provide community-based sentencing alternatives for juvenile delinquents. She presided in Youth Court for more than 15 years and was a tireless advocate for treating the whole family because she saw both parents and youth coming through the court system. She dealt with parental drug abuse and meth epidemics.
In 1989, Judge Barz became Justice Barz, the first woman to serve on the Montana Supreme Court. She served for 18 months, commuting most weekends between her family in Billings and the court chambers in Helena. She resigned her appointment in February 1991 to stay with her family, husband, Dan, and their son, Rocky, who was 12.
After a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, Barz was again elected to the District Court bench and re-elected. She retired in 2003.
Always passionate about the law, Barz was tough when she needed to be. She presided over some of the most notorious criminal trials as well as every type of civil case.
“If you are going to be a judge, you will have to make unpopular decisions,” Barz once told a Gazette reporter. “That’s all there is to it.”
Montana is a better place because Diane Barz blazed trails for women in the practice of law. Our juvenile justice system was set on a better course thanks to Judge Barz. Even as her family and many friends grieve her passing, they may be consoled by the fact that Diane Barz contributed mightily to Montana justice over four decades.