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Gazette Opinion

Just a week ago, confirmation of two desperately needed federal judges for Montana seemed mired in the quicksand that marks the shift of U.S. Senate control to the Democrats.

No hearings were scheduled as the Senate reorganized its lineup of committee leaders and members.

The picture has brightened considerably, and none too soon.

Three Bush nominees are now set for Wednesday hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two are from Montana: Richard F. Cebull, a U.S. magistrate judge in Great Falls, and Sam E. Haddon, a Missoula attorney.

Nominees Richard Cebull: U.S. magistrate in Great Falls since 1998. Roundup, Mont., native. Billings attorney for 29 years. Graduated from the University of Montana School of Law in 1969.

Sam Haddon: Missoula attorney for last 32 years, partner in the firm of Boone, Karlberg & Haddon. Chair of the state Commission on Practice. Served with the U.S. Border Patrol and Federal Bureau of Narcotics in late 1950s and early 1960s. Graduated from University of Montana School of Law in 1965. Clerked for U.S. District Judge William Jameson and began private practice in Billings in 1966. Opened private practice in Missoula in 1969.

Haddon would replace retiring U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena. Cebull would replace retiring U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings.

Montana has three federal district judges and two of the positions have been vacant since February. The only active federal district judge is Chief Judge Don Molloy of Missoula. Before the news of Wednesday’s hearings was announced, he told Gazette reporter Lorna Thackeray that the situation was intolerable.

“It’s just getting logistically impossible here in Montana,” he said. “We’re bringing in out-of-state judges left and right. Last week we had three hearing cases in Montana. I had to interrupt a trial in Missoula to go to Butte and handle criminal matters. We’re almost at the brink.”

News of the hearings had to be music to Molloy’s ears.

Smooth hearingsWe anticipate smooth hearings.

The nominees have earned the endorsement of the American Bar Association, whose nomination review committee gave Cebull and Haddon unanimous “well qualified” ratings. They have passed their FBI background checks and filled out all the paperwork required of them.

And because they are recommended jointly by Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and his Democratic counterpart Max Baucus, we see these nominations falling outside the gridlock that had marked judicial appointments in recent years.

Lets hope we’re on the brink of a solution to our judicial crisis.

If the hearings drag on, Molloy has told the senators he may have to suspend the Speedy Trial Act. It falls to district judges to take pleas, try defendants or sentence them in federal felony cases. The Speedy Trial Act sets narrow limits on the length of time it should take to bring a case to trial once a defendant has been charged.