Billings attorney and former Supreme Court justice Diane Barz dies

2014-05-15T11:30:00Z 2014-05-16T07:28:04Z Billings attorney and former Supreme Court justice Diane Barz diesBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Diane Barz, who had a pioneering and distinguished career as a Billings attorney, state district judge and Supreme Court justice, has died.

Mark Parker, president-elect of the State Bar of Montana and a Billings lawyer, confirmed Thursday morning that Barz died Wednesday.

A memorial service will be held for Barz, 70, of Billings, on May 28 at the First Presbyterian Church in Billings, said Michelotti-Sawyers Mortuary, which is handling the service. Barz died of cancer. 

“Without a doubt, she was a trailblazer for women in the legal profession,” said Parker, who had many cases, including jury trials, before Barz.

Barz, Parker said, was “a smart judge and a competent judge. She could be tough. No one walked in the courtroom with any misunderstanding as to who was in charge. No one left the courtroom with a doubt as to who won or who lost. And she would rule in a timely way, oftentimes from the bench.”

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters of Billings called Barz her mentor and "very dear friend. She was such an intelligent individual and good common sense made her a great judge. She was a great resource for me while she was on the bench." 

Watters began her legal career as a law clerk for Barz and the two served as district judges together.

Barz retired in 2003 from a judicial career that spanned 25 years. Her legal career is noted for many firsts.

Barz was the first woman and, at 34, was youngest person elected district judge in Montana, running on a platform for juvenile justice and beating five male opponents in the primary. She went on to beat former City Judge Donald Bjertness in the general election in 1978.

Barz had been a candidate for appointment to district judge in the federal judiciary in 1985, but the White House ultimately nominated Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell. Twenty eight years later, in December 2013, Montana got its first woman federal district judge with Watters' nomination.

In 1989, Gov. Stan Stephens appointed Barz as the first woman justice on the Montana Supreme Court. She served through 1991 before resigning.

Barz returned to Billings where she worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office under Doris Poppler, her former law partner and the state's first female U.S. attorney. 

Barz again resumed the bench, winning election in 1994 to a district judgeship, a position she held until her retirement. In all, Barz served 20 years as a district judge.

Barz also was the only woman in her law school graduating class, earning a degree from the University of Montana in 1968. She served as the first woman law clerk at the Montana Supreme Court from 1968 to 1970.

Barz met Poppler earlier in their careers when both worked for the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office. Together they formed the state's first women’s law firm.

Barz and Poppler inspired Watters. While in junior high school, Watters said, she had to interview people in the field she thought she wanted to enter. "So I interviewed Diane Barz and Doris Poppler," she said.

When Watters graduated from law school, Barz hired her as her law clerk in 1988. "That really started our relationship, our friendship and her mentoring of me," Watters said.

Watters practiced before Barz both as a prosecutor and when she was in private practice. The two women eventually became colleagues, when Watters was appointed district judge in 1997 to fill a vacancy created by retirement.

"She was just so thrilled to have me there. She said it made her life on the bench more enjoyable to have another woman on the bench with her," Watters said.

Barz, she said, taught her how to really research legal issues. "She was just sharp as a tack," she said. Barz also taught her that the case is the most important thing to the people in the courtroom and that it takes courage to do the right thing based on the law.

Barz demonstrated strength of character and integrity both in her professional and personal life, Watters said.

Watters last visited with Barz about a week before her death. "We had a really nice conversation," she said.

"She was a force to be reckoned with. There's no doubt about that. She had a big heart. She loved kids and animals," Watters said.

Until her retirement, Barz focused on the treatment of children in the criminal justice system and served as Youth Court judge in Billings for 15 years. Barz also was chairman of the Montana Judicial Nomination Commission from 1995 to 2003. 

As a district judge, Barz presided over one of Yellowstone County's most grisly murders. Barz sentenced David Thomas Dawson to the death penalty for the 1986 murders of three members of a Billings family.

A jury convicted Dawson in the strangling death of David and Monica Rodstein and their 11-year-old son, Andrew, after kidnapping the family at a Billings motel. The Rodstein's 15-year-old daughter survived.

After years of appeals, Dawson ended his legal challenges and asked for death. He was executed on Aug. 11, 2006.  

As the debate over capital punishment continued, Barz said in 2006, "The years that have gone by haven't completely erased my thought about whether or not the death penalty is the appropriate punishment in any case. However, if it is appropriate punishment, this case is the one to impose it."

Off the bench, Barz was active in a number of community organizations, many involving youth. She participated in Big Brothers and Sisters; the advisory board for the Tumbleweed Program for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth in Yellowstone County and the Junior League of Billings. In addition, she was a member of the UM School of Law Board of Visitors.

In 2004, Barz received the UM Distinguished Alumni Awards during the university's homecoming. Barz also established an endowed scholarship at UM's law school.

More recently, UM commissioned Barz in December 2011 to investigate sexual assaults after allegations surfaced about two female students being gang-raped by male students. Barz’s investigation found evidence of nonconsensual sex not being reported in the university system.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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