The newest member of the Montana Supreme Court took the oath of office Friday in her hometown of Billings in a room packed with family, friends, attorneys and judges.
Ingrid Gustafson, a district court judge for 14 years in Yellowstone County, was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in December to succeed retiring Justice Mike Wheat, who left office Dec. 31, 2017.
Presiding over the ceremony was U.S. District Judge Susan Watters. Sitting judges for the 13th Judicial District participated, minus Judge Don Harris, who had court proceedings at the time. U.S. Magistrate Timothy Cavan was present, as was Russell Fagg, retired district court judge.
It was a celebratory day in the courtroom, with no shortage of lighthearted moments. Gustafson joked about the "Hogwarts robes" judges must wear, and said it was a "truly rare occasion" that her husband donned a suit, as he did for the ceremony Friday.
Watters, who met Gustafson at law school at the University of Montana in the 1980s, performed the swearing in. She also spoke about Gustafson’s work ethic, saying that despite 13th district judges having the highest caseload in the state — roughly 1,600 cases annually — Gustafson had achieved one of the highest rates of on-time case resolutions in the state.
Billings attorney Randy Bishop also spoke on Gustafson's behalf, saying she would bring to the job “the discipline characteristic of an All-American athlete, together with the talent for critical thinking, independent thought, thorough research, careful analysis and humane common sense.”
Gustafson later joked that Bishop’s comments overwhelmed her.
“I will work for greatness, but I’m not guaranteeing anything,” she said.
Gustafson teared up while thanking her family, friends, colleagues and staff for their support, and spoke briefly about her judicial philosophy.
“And I’ve learned there are many unintended consequences of some of the work that we do that cost taxpayers a lot of money and don’t reduce recidivism,” she said.
Gustafson added that society “cannot punish the addiction out of people,” and called for greater substance abuse treatment resources.
“People respond better to incentives than they do sanctions,” she added.
Gustafson, a West High graduate, was appointed by then-Gov. Judy Martz in 2004, won election to retain the post that year and has been re-elected twice since.
She started the 13th Judicial District’s first felony drug court in 2011 and spearheaded a pilot project that was later implemented at other sites throughout Montana to increase family reunification rates and speed up resolutions on child abuse and neglect cases.
Due to the heavy caseload in Yellowstone County, Gustafson won’t leave her Billings job immediately. She’ll continue to manage the district’s adult drug court and her department’s active child abuse and neglect cases. Judge Harris will eventually take over administration of the adult drug court.
Gustafson must run for election this year to retain her seat. If successful, she will serve the remainder of Wheat’s term, which expires in January 2023. The position pays $144,066.
Supreme Court officials hope to have a new judge in Gustafson’s department by April. The Judicial Nomination Commission is accepting applications until Jan. 22. As of Friday afternoon, no applications for the position had been posted.
Yellowstone County has seen considerable turnover on the bench in recent months. In October, Harris was appointed to succeed Fagg, who retired to launch a campaign for U.S. Senate. Additionally, two new judges will take office in Yellowstone County at the start of 2019 after being selected by voters in the November 2018 election.
The two new judges were funded by the Montana Legislature in response to growing caseloads. The 13th Judicial District, which covers Yellowstone County, is the busiest judicial district in the state. It needs an additional seven judges — or 6.7 full-time equivalents — according to the most recent workload review office of the Montana Supreme Court administrator, although lawmakers approved funding for just the two new judgeships.