A Billings attorney with extraordinary experience, impeccable legal skills and decades of community service is on the short list to fill the vacancy in Yellowstone County District Court.
In a field of good applicants, Don Harris stands out for his sterling record, supported by 40 amazingly laudatory letters from colleagues, clients, court officials and law professors. Gov. Steve Bullock has the responsibility of appointing the new judge and soon will interview the top three applicants recommended by the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission. To say that Harris is the best choice in no way disparages the other two finalists, Jessica Fehr and Joe Raffiani.
The new judge will have little time to prepare to for the job in Montana’s busiest District Court. With the resignation of Russell Fagg, effective earlier this month, the workload is growing every day.
District Court judges continually deal with “high volumes of child abuse and neglect, criminal and civil cases deriving out of chemical addictions and juvenile criminal cases,” said Elizabeth Best, chief judge in the District Court that covers Great Falls. “Don has the temperament to respectfully and creatively handle these cases, and to figure out how to manage a daunting caseload. He also has the patience and experience to efficiently handle a courtroom while still recognizing the humanity of the parties and lawyers who appear before him.”
“Don cares deeply about his clients and he takes the time to show his clients that he cares when they are hurting,” wrote Lewistown attorney Kris Birdwell, who said she has referred clients to him. “He is truly one of the finest legal minds in the Montana bar.”
Billings attorney Mary E. “Marilee” Duncan, who was mentored by Harris at the start of her legal career, was one of many supporters commenting on Harris’ ethics: He always plays by the rules.
Thomas Huff, UM professor emeritus of law and philosophy, recalled meeting Harris as an undergraduate who interrupted his education to serve in the U.S. military, and then teaching him as he completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and graduated with honors from the UM law school.
While practicing law for the past 34 years, Harris helped found organizations for youth tennis, soccer and baseball in Billings. He and his wife raised three children. Every year, he has taken pro bono (free of charge) cases. Harris has chaired the Montana Bar’s Legal Services to the Poor Committee, volunteered as a director for Montana Legal Services Corp. and served as a board member for COR Enterprises, a nonprofit that helps train and employ adults with disabilities.
In his application, Harris said public service is the reason he is seeking the judicial appointment: “District Court judges have the opportunity to help individuals, families and their communities. Upholding the rule of law makes our communities safer and business more efficient and predictable. Innovative alternatives to imprisonment, like drug courts and veterans’ treatment programs, help people while reducing the burden on taxpayers.”
Bullock has a deadline of Nov. 2 for appointing Fagg’s replacement. The appointee will have to run for election in November 2018. Two additional Yellowstone County District Court judges will be chosen in that election. With the present state authorization for six judges, Yellowstone County district judges each have more than double the caseload considered full time by national standards. The additional two judges will help ease the overload and speed up resolution of cases. Meanwhile, six judges will continue doing the work of 12.
Yellowstone County needs an outstanding sixth judge to handle this challenging job well. Harris fits that job description best.