A committee of nine Montana lawyers and judges will begin the process of replacing two federal district judges who will be retiring this year.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Wednesday announced the formation of a panel to find replacements for U.S. district judges Richard Cebull of Billings and Sam Haddon of Great Falls.
Both judges have said they will go on senior status, which is similar to semi-retiring. The judges will continue working but with a reduced caseload.
Cebull, 68, the chief judge of the district, will go on senior status on March 18. Haddon, 75, goes on senior status Monday.
“As we thank Judges Cebull and Haddon for their dedication and service, we must rise to the challenge of finding the most qualified, ethical and hardworking candidates to fill their shoes,” Baucus said.
“I’ve put together a diverse committee that includes some of the finest legal experts in the state to recommend the very best Montanans to fill these judicial vacancies.”
Montana lawyers interested in the positions should submit resumes to the search committee by Jan. 7. The senator did not announce a deadline for when the committee is to make recommendations.
Baucus said he wants the committee to evaluate candidates based on experience, ethics, analytical skills, writing skills and respect for precedent.
The committee will recommend names to Baucus, who will review them and forward names to President Barack Obama. The president will then nominate candidates, who are subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Confirmation requires a majority vote.
The position is a lifetime appointment and pays $174,000 a year. A U.S. district judge hears civil and criminal cases, including major crime cases from Indian Country.
Montana has three district judges. With Cebull and Haddon going to senior status, that leaves U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula as the only full-time judge.
So far, two Billings attorneys — Martha Sheehy and Carey Matovich — have publicly expressed interest in the job.
Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana law professor who teaches at the University of Richmond, Va., said the committee is composed of "mostly very experienced lawyers" and has good representation of gender and other interests. "I either taught or know by reputation almost all of these people," he said Wednesday.
The panel has a few more plaintiffs attorneys than defense attorneys, Tobias noted. There also are judges, a lawyer with an American Indian perspective and a former federal prosecutor with experience in criminal cases.
"These are people who will know the applicants. It looks like they're off to a good start," Tobias said.
The committee, Tobias said, is likely to recommend between three and five candidates to Baucus rather than sending him two names.
"He's going to need that flexibility," he said.
The members of the Judicial Vacancy Search Committee are:
Max Davis, Great Falls, chairman: Davis is senior member of Davis, Hatley, Haffeman & Tighe, and his practice includes civil litigation primarily for defendants.
Shane Colton, Billings: Colton is a partner in Edmiston & Colton and represents plaintiffs in serious personal injury and wrongful-death claims. He is a member of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.
Majel Russell, Crow Tribe: Russell is a Crow Tribal member and established the Elk River Law Office in Billings. She was appointed in 2007 by President George W. Bush as principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior.
Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, Helena: Baker was elected to the Supreme Court in 2010.
Mike Cok, Bozeman: Cok founded the law firm Cok and Wheat and represents clients in product liability and personal-injury claims. He is a long-term member of the Board of Directors of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and served as a delegate on the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference.
Billings Municipal Judge Sheila Kolar, Billings: Before becoming a judge, Kolar was a Yellowstone County deputy attorney and also a special assistant U.S. attorney. As a special federal prosecutor, Kolar prosecuted drug crimes for five years.
Bill Rossbach, Missoula: Rossbach is a private practice attorney who focuses on medical negligence and product liability. Rossbach has extensive experience in federal courts across the country.
Zander Blewett, Great Falls: Blewett is a partner in Hoyt & Blewett and focuses on railroad law, personal injury, fraud and other areas.
John Jones, Billings: Jones practices with Moulton Bellingham and focuses on tax, corporate, real estate and finance law. He serves on the board of trustees for Rocky Mountain College and is a trustee for the Charles M. Bair Family Trust.