Case Backlog Focus of Judge’s Race

By Beacon Staff

The 2009 Montana Legislature created the new Flathead County District Court judge position in order to ease the county’s over-loaded system. Four candidates, from a variety of legal backgrounds, are running for the position. While all candidates agree that the court system should be expedited and backlog reduced, all plan to approach the issue in a different manner.

The June 8 primary election will determine the two candidates who will continue onto the Nov. 2 general election. The elected judge will serve a 6-year term starting next year and will join the three district court judges currently serving Flathead County.

Phyllis Quatman

Phyllis Quatman says her past achievements reflect her ability to shoulder a heavy workload.

After earning a master’s degree in education, she enrolled in law school at 33, often attending class with her 3-year-old daughter in tow. During her second year, Quatman gave birth to her son.

“I was the only pregnant person at law school,” she said.

After graduation, Quatman worked as the Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney in the Bay Area, where she prosecuted a wide range of cases.

“We had about a million people in that county, more than the entire state of Montana,” she said. “My experience is unique with all the cases I’ve handled.”

In addition to seeing over 90 jury trials go to verdict, Quatman established the county’s first domestic violence unit.

After moving from California to Whitefish, where she has worked in private practice for over a decade, Quatman says she has developed a deep respect for Flathead County residents.

“I love how seriously people take their civil rights here, whether it’s the right to privacy or the right to bear arms,” she said.

If elected, Quatman says she would revamp the district court.

“I can best affect the changes that will streamline our system, which definitely needs tweaking,” she said. “The court has changed so much in the last 13 years since I’ve been here, not only in the number of cases, but in the types of cases.”

After prioritizing an overhaul of the criminal calendar, Quatman says she would establish firmer collaboration among the justice, municipal and district courts.

Also, with four judges now at the district level, Quatman envisions simplifying the system by placing each judge at the head of a different court for criminal, civil, domestic and “catch-all” cases.

“That way each judge would be assigned to a division and they could become very efficient and very up-to-speed because they’re not multi-tasking,” she said.

In addition, Quatman says she has the experience needed to set a quick pace in the courtroom, which would help avoid backlog.

“With these complex cases, they go so fast that you need someone who can hit the ground running and who can make efficient, accurate decisions so you don’t have case reversals which cost everyone money,” she said. “You want someone who’s had that complicated litigation experience.”


Rich DeJana

Although Rich DeJana has practiced law in the Flathead Valley for over three decades, many people only associate him with his involvement in youth soccer.

“There are people in town who know me as the soccer guy and don’t know that I’m a lawyer,” he said.

DeJana believes the game of soccer is comparable to the practice of law, noting that both soccer referees and trial lawyers need to make 20 decisions a minute.

“It makes you visual and I find that it helps me analyze problems,” he said. “When I’m in the courtroom or coaching on the sideline, I’m watching what’s going on.”

After working 33 years as a litigator, the Great Falls native says one recent case solidified his desire to run for district judge.

“I had a client pass away after waiting four-and-a-half years for some substantive rulings,” he said. “We are just now at a point where the judge is getting ready to rule on some of the motions, and that’s a sin; that’s the only way I can say it.”

To prevent similar occurrences from happening, DeJana says he would prioritize weeding through the backlog of old cases.

“The backlog is a disaster, so that should be the primary focus [of the new judge],” he said. “It’s just who’s going to be able to do it?”

If elected, DeJana promises his nose would often meet the grindstone.

“You have to be around doing the work to get it done and you have to do the work smart,” he said. “I’ve never worked a 40-hour week.”

DeJana also believes in ruling from the bench as often as possible.

“It’s a little scary and it’s like waiting for a jury verdict, but it is tremendous,” he said, noting that the strategy can decide some cases in under an hour. “Compare that to waiting literally years for a decision.”

In addition, DeJana says he would bring his experience of being a hands-on lawyer.

“I bring the perception of being a litigator,” he said. “Of all the candidates combined, I’m the only one who’s spent his career not only in litigating, but in general practice.”


David Ortley

David Ortley recently received a letter from a couple he had ruled against four years ago in justice court. The couple wrote that in hindsight, they now understood why Ortley ruled the way he had.

“They said that my analysis had been correct, that I treated them with respect and I now have their unwavering support in the campaign,” he said. “That letter was the ultimate compliment.”

As a young student from southern Minnesota, Ortley believed he was headed for a career in medicine. Several summers spent as a law enforcement ranger in Glacier National Park, however, altered his aspirations.

“My summers in Glacier Park were life changing and that was my introduction to Montana and law enforcement,” he said.

Ortley shifted his course of study to law and eventually returned to the Flathead Valley, where he has served as Flathead County’s Justice of the Peace for the past 11 years.

Ortley says his prior judge experience would allow him to take the bench the day after the election.

“I am a trained judged,” he said. “It’s a process that takes time to learn, and I’ve learned the process.”

Ortley believes that with the current lack of resources and personnel, it’s not a realistic goal for the new judge to eradicate the existing district court backlog overnight.

“[For the other candidates] to say they would eliminate backlog is looking at it through much too narrow of a scope,” he said. “Backlog is a multi-faceted problem that is an issue across the country.”

While Ortley says he would work at reducing the backlog, he feels the problem will continue to exist until more resources become available

“It’s a function of having enough judges to hear the cases,” he said. “I have ideas on how to eliminate backlog, but until we have enough judges, we will always have backlog.”
Still, Ortley says his passion runs deep for the profession.

“I thoroughly enjoy being involved in the resolution of the dispute,” he said. “These people have a problem that they can’t through any other means resolve and I want to get their situation solved.”


Heidi Ulbricht

Waitressing in West Glacier as a teenager imprinted the region’s beauty on Heidi Ulbricht’s mind.

After clerking for a district court judge in Idaho after law school, Ulbricht packed her Volvo wagon and returned to Montana.

“I was still drawn to moving back to the Flathead since I had worked here for a couple of summers,” she said.

Ulbricht brought with her the desire to become a district court judge, which she says she inherited from that initial law job

“It’s the culmination of everything I’ve done,” she said. “Most of the choices I’ve made with my education, and my volunteer service have prepared me well to become a district court judge.”

For the past 16 years, Ulbricht has worked as the Flathead County Municipal Court judge, where she has made it a priority to organize her court.

She says attending courses on case-flow management and court administration at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., helped her rid her court of backlog.

“I find that it’s important that people receive a timely decision,” she said. “If I don’t clear up what I have, there’s more coming the backside, so I’d better deal with it.”

In addition, Ulbricht feels her CPA certification would aid her in district court.

“In this economic time, there’s going to be some complex financial issues and with my legal and accounting background, I can logically analyze that and reach a good, sound legal conclusion,” she said.

Having started the first and only drug and DUI courts in Flathead County, Ulbricht believes her innovation is another asset.

“I recognized a few years ago that you could expand the traditional court to meet the needs of the community,” she said.

With her love for technology, Ulbricht also hopes to fully push the district court into the 21st century.

“I was the first limited court [in Montana] with scanning and imaging so we can recall all of our documents back to 2003,” she said. “I would bring that up to district court and help to develop any court filing and digital use of records while I’m on the bench.”


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