Kalispell attorney Dana L. Christensen is under consideration to replace U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
Christensen, 59, confirmed his interest in the job Friday. He is the lone recommendation from a five-attorney panel selected by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. Christensen's name has been forwarded to President Barack Obama, who will nominate a judge candidate for consideration by the full Senate.
"First, I am interested in the job and second, I understand that I am being considered for the job, which of course is a tremendous honor," Christensen said. "Beyond that I cannot comment."
Baucus' office earlier this week declined to say if Christensen's name had been submitted. The senator's office emphasized that the senator isn't responsible for the nomination.
Molloy announced in December that he will be taking senior status in August 2011.
Christensen's recommendation was welcomed by Justice Richard F. Cebull, the chief U.S. judge for the District of Montana.
"There is not a better prospect in this entire state," said Cebull, who was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush in 2001. "He's an outstanding lawyer. He's been an outstanding trial lawyer in civil cases for over 30 years that I've known him."
Cebull, Christensen and U.S. Judge Sam E. Haddon are all faculty members of the Advance Trial Advocacy Program at the University of Montana Law School. Together, they observe and critique law students operating in a mock trial setting.
Christensen has a resumé few attorneys can match, Judge Haddon said. A member of Christensen, Moore, Cockrell, Cummings and Axelberg, Christensen belongs to American College of Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only group of trial attorneys whose membership is limited to 1 percent of the bar.
"He's a good lawyer, a good man and, in my opinion, ethically totally qualified," Haddon said. "If he is confirmed by the Senate and becomes a justice of our court, the district will be well served to have him, and I personally would look forward to working with him."
Haddon, like Cebull, was nominated by President Bush in February 2001. The two justices were approved the following July. Cebull said he sees no reason for the Senate to object to Christensen, who he said could reasonably be appointed by August when Molloy takes senior status.
Both Republican-appointed justices said they were aware how quickly judicial recommendations can become politicized. Cebull contacted The Gazette to give a nonpartisan endorsement of Christensen's recommendation. Rarely do U.S. justices speak out on such matters.
Christensen's recommendation was criticized as a political appointment, first by anonymous tipsters who revealed the recommendation before it was made public, then by Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party.
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"It looks more and more like a web of corruption around Senator Baucus," said Bowen Greenwood, Montana Republican Party executive director. " It's a good thing Dana Christiansen isn't a Democrat state legislator, or Governor Schweitzer would already have hired him for a government job. It's sad to see public service positions turned into personal political payoffs."
Baucus and Christensen shared political news in 2009 when the recommendation of Billings attorney Melodee Hanes for Montana U.S. attorney came under scrutiny.
Hanes was a former state office director for Baucus then working for the Justice Department. Christensen vetted Hanes' recommendation for Montana U.S. attorney that spring.
Christensen said he knew nothing of a secret relationship between Baucus and Hanes when she emerged as a U.S. attorney candidate. She was one of three names submitted for consideration.
Hanes wasn't selected as Montana's U.S. attorney. She withdrew her name from consideration in March 2009, 10 months before it became a political issue. The job went to Mike Cotter, a Helena attorney.
Nothing was made of Hanes' consideration for months, but by December as the debate over federal health care reform heated up and a reform proposal by Baucus emerged as one of the few surviving options, Republicans went public with their concerns about Hanes' consideration. Hanes and Baucus were in a secret relationship, they said.
Last month, Baucus and Hanes announced they are engaged to be married.
Missoula attorney Milt Datsopoulos was on the panel that vetted Christensen for the federal court opening. Wednesday, he said more than 10 attorneys were considered for the recommendation. The other members of the panel are attorneys James Goetz, of Bozeman; Martha Sheehy, of Billings; Candace Fetscher, of Missoula and former Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Karla Gray.
Outside the courtroom, Christensen might best be known for his role in the 2008 purchase of 320,000 Montana forest acres from Plum Creek Timber Co. for $510 million. The acreage located in the Seely and Missoula valleys and the Yaak, were slated for real estate development. The Nature Conservancy, to which Christensen belongs, arranged the sale to preserve wildlife habitat and public access, but also to leave it open to sustained logging in the future by the seller, Plum Creek.
That sale was the largest conservation land deal in U.S. history. Other Nature Conservancy projects involve conserving grasslands, but leaving them open to sustainable Montana cattle grazing.
Christensen has never sought political office. He has supported several state and federal candidates in judicial and partisan races.
State campaign records indicate Christensen donated $6,298 to Montana candidates in partisan races since 1990. Nearly all of the candidates Christensen supported were Democrats, but Christensen did contribute to Republican Bob Brown's successful 2000 Secretary of State race. He also contributed to Republican Clyde Smith's 1990 campaign for the state Legislature.
Federal election records indicate that since 2000, Christensen donated $2,950 to Democratic federal candidates, including Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester. He donated $250 to President Obama's campaign in 2008.