A fifth judge will join the Montana’s 11th District Court in January 2023, bringing an additional jurist to Flathead County to help manage the nearly 6,000 new and re-opened cases that flow through the district every year.
Flathead County residents will select the new judge during the November 2022 general election, with the winner of that race taking their seat on Jan. 2 of the following year. That person will join sitting judges Robert Allison, Amy Eddy and Heidi Ulbricht. The fourth sitting judge, Dan Wilson, is up for re-election in 2022.
State administrators have long identified Flathead County as a spot where an additional judge was needed but before this year no physical space was available to accommodate that request. The four district courtrooms and the court’s administrative offices are currently located on the third floor of the Flathead County Justice Center at 920 S. Main St. in Kalispell, but by January 2023 a fifth courtroom will be available on the second floor of the building. That courtroom currently houses Flathead County Justice Court, which is being relocated as part of a major re-shuffling of state and county offices following the county’s acquisition of the former CenturyLink building at 290 N. Main St.
When elected, the new judge will have no shortage of cases to work on. Since 2017, an annual analysis published by the Montana Supreme Court has estimated that Flathead County is more than two judges short of what is needed to properly manage and consider all matters before the court. In 2020, there were 5,790 cases either opened or re-opened in Flathead County, a slight dip from 2019 (5,878) but a sizeable jump from 2009 (4,457), the last time a new judge was added here.
Various non-criminal actions make up the largest percentage of the district’s caseload, with 2,223 civil cases either opened or re-opened in 2020 and another 1,186 cases involving domestic relations, according to state data. Flathead County judges handled a total of 1,021 criminal cases last year.
Along with the addition of a fifth judge, money from the state’s general fund will also pay for a law clerk and judicial assistant for the new judge, along with a third court reporter to work in the district.
In a press release announcing the news, Judge Eddy thanked local and state officials for working together to find a solution to the district’s growing workload.
“The addition of a fifth judge will be transformative for the members of our community involved in both the criminal and civil justice systems,” she wrote. “Flathead County is one of the fastest growing areas in Montana. These additional resources will allow us to address the growing demands on the judicial system, develop an Adult Drug Treatment Court, and continue to provide timely and meaningful access to the courts.”
The addition of an adult treatment court is in the “very early planning stages,” according to court administrator Devin Kuntz, but if it does come to fruition it could transform the way many of the district’s criminal cases are handled. In most cases, drug treatment courts redirect certain defendants, generally those accused of non-violent crimes who suffer from an underlying substance addiction, from the jail system and provide them with significant legal and medical support. Several jurisdictions in Montana already have adult drug treatment courts, including in Lake County, and advocates say they lower rates of recidivism, help clear overcrowded jails and positively reintegrate addicts into their communities.
Flathead County currently has a type of civil drug court, the Flathead Family Treatment Court, which was established in 2019 thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Participation in that program is voluntary, unlike criminal treatment courts.
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