As Kalispell attorney Dana Christensen prepares to go before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and earn the votes of a majority of the body in order to be confirmed as the newest judge for the federal district court of Montana, he will be navigating a politically delicate minefield.
If confirmed, Christensen will succeed U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in a position that, as Molloy has demonstrated with his controversial decisions on wolf management, has become among the most high profile judicial assignments in the West.
Despite these difficulties, those who know Christensen say he is more than up to the challenge.
“I think very highly of him; I think he’s a terrific choice for the job,” state Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris said. “He’s got a good temperament for it.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., submitted Christensen’s name for the job earlier this year, and on May 4 Christensen’s name was among six federal judge nominations announced by President Barack Obama.
Christensen, who has a civil defense practice at the Kalispell law firm of Christensen, Moore, Cockrell, Cummings & Axelberg, P.C., declined to be interviewed for this story, citing recommendations by those managing his nomination process before the Senate that he avoid the spotlight. But interviews with several Montana judges and attorneys reveal that Christensen has cultivated a reputation for fairness, candor and integrity.
Christensen, 49, was raised in Missoula and earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1973.
Another Kalispell attorney, Randall Ogle, first met Christensen in high school when he served as lieutenant governor, and Christensen was governor, in the Boys State mock government project. The two men also shared an office during their time at the University of Montana School of Law in the mid-1970s, and ran a tree thinning business together one summer.
“He was a very serious student – worked hard, studied hard,” Ogle said of Christensen. “I think the professors thought highly of him.”
Christensen graduated from law school in 1976 and was admitted to the Montana Bar and the U.S. District Court, District of Montana, in the same year. Five years later he was admitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
Over the course of his career, working mostly in defense, Christensen has taken on several high-profile cases. Throughout the 2000s, Christensen worked on a team representing Montana Power Co. that managed to reach a historic, and deeply complex $115 million settlement with shareholders of the power company who lost their life savings when it went bankrupt, following deregulation.
Christensen also represented Montana in hearings over whether the state government bore responsibility for informing workers of the health hazards in Libby’s vermiculite mine. The court said the state should have warned the miners and a deal is under consideration.
Morris, who recalled Christensen’s work on that case, said he is forthright about the circumstances of a given issue.
“He recognizes the weakness of his case as well as emphasizing the strong suits of his case,” Morris said. “He’s candid with the courts; he doesn’t try to hide the ball.”
Morris added that these attributes of Christensen should translate well as a judge.
“I’m sure he’ll treat all the lawyers and parties in his court with a great deal of respect,” Morris said.
Closer to the valley, Flathead District Judge Ted Lympus has known Christensen for years, and noted that Lympus’ mother was one of Christensen’s grade school teachers. Lympus described his demeanor in the courtroom as “considerate of others,” and “not a bit arrogant or anything of that nature.”
“He’s a very reasonable and no-nonsense person,” Lympus added. “He has no agenda other than that justice be done.”
Though Christensen has tried roughly 50 jury and non-jury trials, his current work primarily entails the defense of medical and legal malpractice claims, and he is in the courtroom less now than he once was. But he has also taught for years in the weeklong trial practice course offered at the UM law school.
Edwin Eck, a professor and former dean of the law school, said Christensen’s courtroom style connected easily with students.
“Dana Christensen always has the presence of a solid person with integrity, not overstating, not understating,” Eck said. “A lot of [students] related to Dana just because of his credibility and his integrity.”
Eck believes Christensen may be the first U.S. District Court judge from Kalispell, noting that the demanding job regularly requires decisions on issues with enormous consequences for Montanans.
“You’re going to have very important cases, some of which will have overtures of public policy,” Eck said. “He’ll have some difficulties, as I’m sure all of them do.”
But the position of federal judge is one that offers rewards as well.
“It’s an honor,” Eck said. “You’re in a position that very few people have had.”
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