Yellowstone County is home to Montana’s busiest District Court. Our six judges each wrangle more than double the caseload considered a full load. In fact, an independent evaluation conducted for the Supreme Court Administrator's Office two years ago said the court needed seven more judges. The Legislature funded two.
The docket for the two new departments has been growing since June, with the six incumbent judges handling the cases till the new jurists take office. At the start of October, about 500 cases already had been assigned to each new judge. So when those judges start work in January, they will step into a high-volume, high-demand job where experience counts tremendously.
In Department 7, Colette Davies is the only candidate with judicial experience. Davies served for more than five years in an even busier court — as a Billings municipal judge appointed by Mary Jane Knisely, who was then the elected municipal judge.
The other candidate in this nonpartisan judicial election is Thomas Pardy, a deputy city attorney who has handled civil matters for the city of Billings for the past three years. Pardy has practiced law for 20 years and served in the Montana National Guard for 33 years.
Davies has practiced law for 21 years. Both she and Pardy have been active in community service.
Pardy praised the veterans treatment court that Knisely now presides over as part of her District Court work and told The Gazette editorial board that he would like to be involved in a treatment court as a judge.
Eager to work in treatment court again, Davies already has the experience, having received state and national-level training in these problem-solving alternates to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Davies worked with Knisely as she established DUI and mental health treatment courts and, at times, Davies presided over those courts.
Last year, Davies was one of the three candidates recommended to Gov. Steve Bullock for succeeding Judge Ingrid Gustafson after she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Montana Supreme Court. In her application, Davies said a good district judge must have an even temperament and the ability to make difficult decisions in a timely manner.
As a partner in Bishop, Heenan and Davies, she mostly handles civil cases and is keenly aware of the delays precipitated by the large and growing court caseload. Because criminal cases and child abuse/neglect cases have priority, civil matters wait longer for court dates — sometimes more than a year. Davies presented the editorial board with several ideas for increasing the court’s efficiency in scheduling, use of video conferencing and use of mediation, including recruiting mediators to take some cases at no charge.
Davies has extensive experience with self-represented litigants, who make up a significant portion of the District Court civil caseload. People appeared daily in Municipal Court without lawyers. As an attorney in private practice, Davies has represented indigent clients at no charge on cases ranging from child custody, to a college student disciplinary matter to women seeking safety from domestic violence. She handled many cases referred by Montana Legal Services.
At a League of Women Voters forum last week, Davies shared an example of how she has had to fashion creative solutions to the problems people bring to court: A couple appeared before her for a hearing on an order of protection, but both said they no longer wanted the order, so she dismissed the case. Shortly thereafter, Davies found the couple fighting over their child just outside her courtroom. One parent had the child’s arms, the other had the legs. She ordered them to let the bailiff hold the child while they talked to each other to reach agreement on which parent would take the child home. They settled their dispute and departed peacefully with the child.
Yellowstone County needs such common-sense thinking in our courts. Colette Davies has the greatest experience to serve well as the district judge in Department 7. She will be ready to preside over that 500-and-growing caseload on Jan. 2.