The U.S. Senate on Thursday night confirmed two nominees for federal judgeships in Montana — Susan Watters for district judge in Billings and Brian Morris for district judge in Great Falls.
The long-awaited confirmations end a judicial emergency in the state created by vacancies in two of the state’s three judgeships.
Watters, 55, who has served as a state district judge in Billings for 15 years, becomes the first woman in Montana to be appointed as a U.S. district court judge. Watters will replace retired U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.
Morris, 50, who has been a Montana Supreme Court justice since 2005, will replace Senior U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon, who semi-retired from the Great Falls division at the end of 2012.
The senate voted 75 to 20 to confirm Morris and 77 to 19 to confirm Watters, with Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, supporting the nominees. A simple majority vote was needed for confirmation.
"The confirmation of two excellent Montanans to serve on the federal bench is great news and critical to addressing the judicial emergencies brought on by vacancies on the court," Baucus said shortly after the votes. "Brian Morris and Susan Watters have a long record of public service, integrity and leadership. I am certain they will continue to serve Montanans well at a time when their service is so greatly needed," he said.
Tester also praised the confirmations. "Montana is fortunate to have two highly qualified judges ready to serve our state. Judge Watters and Justice Morris represent the best of Montana, and I'm pleased that they are bringing their integrity and judgment to Montana's federal bench," he said.
Watters and Morris had hearings on July 24 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the candidates in September. President Barack Obama nominated the pair in May based on Baucus’ recommendations.
The lifetime appointments pay an annual salary of $174,000.
“I’m really excited. It’s a wonderful Christmas gift,” said Watters upon confirmation. “I’m just really thankful to Sen. Baucus for selecting me and for President Obama for nominating me.”
Watters also noted the support of her husband, Ernie Watters, a Billings Police detective, through the nomination process.
“It was an intense process, which it should be for a lifetime appointment. I’m glad that’s over and I’m ready to start,” Watters said.
On becoming Montana’s first woman federal district judge, Watters said, “I know it’s very significant. It’s time and I’m very excited and humbled to be that person.” Montana, she said, has some “pretty fantastic” attorneys and judges who are women.
Watters said she has a lot of patience, is a good listener and has a strong work ethic. “I believe in giving each side an opportunity to be heard. I think it is very important to have strong analytical skills and I think I do,” she said.
Watters also said being in court can be stressful for people and that she wants them to understand her opinions even if they may not prevail. “I think they’re entitled to a well reasoned, written opinion,” she said.
With years of broad legal experience, Watters enjoys the courtroom. “I like being in the courtroom and trying cases. I like that,” she said.
Watters was appointed to the state bench in 1998 by former Gov. Marc Racicot and has been re-elected three times, most recently last year. Watters also has presided over the Yellowstone County Family Drug Treatment Court, a treatment-based alternative to prison, since she started the program in 2001.
Watters worked in private practice and as a prosecutor in the Yellowstone County attorney’s office.
Born in Billings, Watters received a law degree from the University of Montana in 1988 and graduated from Eastern Montana College in 1980. She has two grown daughters.
Minutes after his confirmation Thursday evening, Morris said he’s looking forward to the challenge of being one of Montana’s newest U.S. district judges.
Morris said he’s enjoyed his time on the state supreme court, but that the pace of being an appellate judge is a bit slow, and that he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it the rest of his career.
“This (new job) gives me a great chance to continue serving the people of Montana in a different role, as a trial judge,” he said.
Morris said he brings a wide array of experience to the bench, having worked as a trial attorney, a judge, a clerk for judges and as an attorney working on international law.
“I think I bring a common-sense perspective on how to interpret the law,” he said. “The way it’s going to be in my court is, everyone gets a fair shake. The law is applied evenly.”
Morris said he expects he’ll be commuting initially to his federal judgeship job in Great Falls, but eventually will move to Great Falls with his family. Morris and his wife, Cherche Prezeau, a private attorney in Helena, have three sons and a daughter.
Morris, who is from Butte, earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford, where he also was a fullback on the football team. He worked as state solicitor under Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath from 2001-2004, representing the state in some major cases, such as the lawsuit that led to the state’s school-funding system being declared unconstitutional because of inadequate funding. He ran for the state Supreme Court in 2004 and defeated Missoula District Judge Ed McLean and won a second term on the court in 2012, when he was unopposed.
The next step will be for Watters and Morris to sign a commission from the president before taking the oath of office, a Baucus spokeswoman said.
Morris is expected to be sworn in by Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula on Dec. 18 at the Montana Supreme Court Chambers in Helena. He’ll submit his resignation letter from the court that day, he said.
Senior U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula is expected to swear in Watters in Billings on Dec. 19, when she too will submit her resignation letter.
The two Montana judgeships have been vacant for months, leaving Christensen as the state’s lone full-time district judge and creating a judicial emergency. Christensen has had to drive 300 miles round trip to hear cases, Baucus said.
To cope with the judicial vacancies in the Billings division, Christensen reassigned all of the Billings cases to other senior judges, magistrate judges and visiting judges.
At times, litigants, attorneys and parties in civil and criminal cases in Billings cases have had to drive to Helena — a 448 mile-round trip — for hearings before Haddon.
Billings has been without any district judge since September, when Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings fully retired on Sept. 15 after working on senior status since 2001 and serving 23 years on the bench.
Cebull took senior status in March then retired May 3, after the Judicial Council of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals completed its investigation into a racist email forwarded by Cebull last year involving President Barack Obama.
Although no controversy surrounded the nominations of Watters and Morris, their confirmations along with other judicial nominations and appointments have been awaiting Senate action.
In November, Senate Democrats used a series of parliamentary votes to abolish the use of the filibuster to block presidential appointees to executive agencies and the federal courts, except the U.S. Supreme Court. The rule changes require a simple majority vote instead of 60 votes confirm a nomination.
Montana’s senators joined fellow Democrats to change filibuster rules saying minority Republicans have abused the process to block appointments. The move was prompted primarily by Republicans’ holding up of the president’s recent nominees to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
This week, the Senate began confirming nominees to the Washington D.C. appellate court, district courts and other positions in a marathon, round-the-clock session led by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to push through nominations.