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Missoula County Justice of the Peace John Odlin watches an attorney walk away after making the case for a client in May 2013.

He’s spent more than four decades in public service, and by the time he leaves office as a Missoula County justice of the peace, John Odlin will have racked up more months still.

Odlin says this term on the Justice Court bench will be his last. A deputy Missoula County attorney, Matthew Lowy, already has thrown his hat into the ring, saying he’ll seek the job. Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech’s term also is up; she plans to run for re-election.

“It sure will be different around here without Judge Odlin,” Orzech said Friday.

Of course, a lot of things are different since Odlin first took the bench 18 years ago. He’s proud of the warrant hotline, which people can call to see if they’re facing warrants, that was installed the year after he started in Justice Court.

That simple step cleaned up a huge backlog, he said.

The two justices of the peace now alternate the days they hold trials with the days they handle initial court appearances. When Odlin first took the bench, a trial would be halted in the middle of the afternoon while he dealt with people who’d been arrested overnight.

“We don’t have to break up trials now,” he said.

Montana Highway Patrol tickets are filed electronically now, and dispositions are transferred electronically to Helena, he said.

Other things haven’t changed at all.

“The drunk drivers were here when I got here, and they’re still here,” he said. Also, he said, “I hate to say this, but I see a lot of the same ones over and over. The people I was chasing as a highway patrolman, I’m now seeing in court.”

Odlin spent 23 years in the Highway Patrol before coming to Justice Court and those two jobs combined, said his friend and fellow judge Shorty Stewart, constitute enough public service for anyone.

“I think he’s one of the most dedicated public service people Missoula’s ever had,” said Stewart, who spent 10 years filling in as an acting justice of the peace before leaving that job in November.

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Odlin is a physically imposing man who can glower with the best of them. A defendant who thinks it’s a good move to sass the judge quickly finds out otherwise.

“He can be intimidating,” said Stewart, adding that a judge often needs to be.

“I don’t think people need to be afraid of you, but you need to convey that you are in charge,” Stewart said. “I don’t think anybody ever went into his courtroom not knowing he was in charge.”

It was from Odlin, Stewart said, that he learned about “dealing with people who weren’t as respectful as they should have been.”

Amy Blixt, the office manager for Justice Court and also a substitute judge, said she was one of the folks who found Odlin intimidating early on.

But over the years she’s found that “he has a sense of humor, believe it or not.”

“He’s very kind, he’s by the book, he’s fair across the board. He’s not going to give somebody a favor and not give everybody the same treatment. And, he’s compassionate,” Blixt said.

Best of all, she said, “we always know what to expect on a day-to-day basis. We support him as a team.”

Odlin, who will be 66 in January, said he has no plans for retirement beyond doing some traveling, likely to Seattle or the Oregon coast, with his wife. That, and he wants to spend as much time as he can with his two grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The Odlin name also will continue to be in the public eye. Both his sons are city police officers. Chris Odlin is a patrol captain, while Jerry is a shift sergeant.

At least Odlin will get to enjoy a new larger courtroom before he leaves. Justice Court is scheduled to move out of its cramped third-floor quarters in the courthouse annex into spacious new digs on the first floor of the old courthouse this summer.

One of the things he’ll miss most about his job is teaching criminology classes in local high schools – something he said he’s willing to do into retirement.

He talks to students about the basics of the legal system. And if those same students pay close attention, they might just pick up a few tips on commanding respect.

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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