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By the middle of August, newly confirmed federal district judges Sam Haddon and Richard Cebull could begin hearing cases in Montana.

Once the formal documents are signed by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Cebull and Haddon can be sworn in over the phone and get right to work, said Chief U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula.

Cebull will preside in Billings, and Haddon will preside in Great Falls.

Molloy said it usually takes six to 10 days between Senate confirmation and presentation of the documents for signatures. Cebull and Haddon were unanimously confirmed by the Senate last Friday.

“I’ve been informed that, as soon as Bush gets back (from Europe), he’ll sign those orders," Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom said Tuesday.

Cebull will replace Shanstrom as full-time district judge. Shanstrom took senior status for health reasons in January.

As a senior judge, Shanstrom will still handle a substantial caseload. He plans to keep the criminal cases assigned to him and to accept 25 percent of the new criminal cases that come through the Billings district.

The senior judge’s chambers on the fifth floor of the downtown federal building in Billings have been remodeled, and Shanstrom said he plans to move in on Aug. 6. Cebull will move into Shanstrom’s old chambers at the opposite side of the building, adjacent to the main courtroom.

Montana has been on the brink of judicial crisis since Shanstrom announced his decision to take senior status, leaving two of the three federal district judgeships in Montana vacant.

Because of the urgency of the situation, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., asked Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to join in the nomination process. Together they pushed for quick action on the Montana candidates.

As a result, Haddon and Cebull were the first judicial nominations made by President Bush and were the first of Bush’s district judge nominees confirmed by the Senate.

Cebull, a graduate of the University of Montana Law School, practiced law in Billings for 29 years. In 1998, he was selected as the U.S. Magistrate for Great Falls. He has been handling many of the same kind of cases as those assigned to district judges.

“The big difference is change of pleas, trials and dealing with the sentencing guidelines," he said.

Magistrates normally handle only arraignments and detention matters in felony criminal cases.

Eventually, Haddon and Cebull will attend a school for new federal judges, but, in the meantime, they will be studying at home. Shanstrom and Molloy have provided Haddon and Cebull with transcripts of various plea-change proceedings. Molloy has also arranged training on complex federal sentencing guidelines with U.S. probation officials and with experienced judges.

Cebull, who handled mostly civil cases while in private practice, said he would also have to bone up on procedures for criminal trials.

“I figure I will do all right," he said. “I don’t have any doubts at all."

Molloy said Haddon and Cebull would be sworn in informally as soon as possible. A formal investiture of the judges probably will be arranged later.

Haddon will assume the civil caseload in Great Falls, while Senior District Judge Charles Lovell will continue to preside over cases arising in Helena.

Molloy said there has been some confusion about whether Haddon would move to Helena or Great Falls. Because Great Falls cases represent about 21 percent to 26 percent of the Montana workload and Helena represents only 6 percent to 9 percent, it makes more sense to have the new judge live in Great Falls, he said.

When Cebull moves to Billings, he will leave a considerable gap in Great Falls. During his years as magistrate, Cebull has compiled a large caseload of his own. Molloy said he would sit down with the two new judges to see which of those cases can be smoothly transferred to Haddon.

The process of finding a new magistrate for Great Falls has already begun, Molloy said. Advertisements for the position, which pays about $133,000 a year, will soon appear in Montana newspapers and in legal journals.

Molloy said he and the other federal district judges in Montana will select an advisory committee to review and screen applicants. The committee will put together a list of the top five candidates and present it to Molloy, Haddon and Cebull. They will chose which candidate gets the job.

Once the selection is made, the candidate must undergo background checks by the FBI.

In the interim, Molloy said he has authorization from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to recall retired U.S. Magistrate Robert Holter to help keep the court system moving.

Cebull said his Great Falls house has been sold, and he and his wife, Linda, have bought land in Billings to build a new one.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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