For those who only met Whitefish Municipal Court Judge William Hileman in the final years of his life, they likely did so in a state of some distress, while hurriedly trying to clear up a speeding ticket or a misdemeanor citation, and therefore paid scant attention to the man in the black robe.
Occasionally, however, they would have discerned a twinkle in his eye or the curl of a smile as he sent them on their way with a sincerely tendered “good luck to you.”
“He really wanted everyone to succeed,” Dan Hileman said of his older brother William “Bill” Eugene Hileman, who died suddenly on Oct. 18 after a tragic fall. He was 69.
A Flathead High School graduate and longtime attorney with a private practice in Whitefish, Bill Hileman spent the last four years of his career in public service, meting out fines as a municipal court judge, an elected position he assumed in 2017, much to the surprise of his friends and family.
“When Bill told me that he was running, I have to say that I was, like many of those who knew him, very surprised,” Dan said. “But he loved every second of it. I don’t think that happens by accident. There was something inside of Bill that made him want to be a city judge. He was done practicing law, but he didn’t just want to sit at home and watch soap operas. And this was an opportunity to continue helping the community.”
Although largely ignored by judicial theorists, municipal courts are essential to the U.S. criminal justice system, and are central to a city’s ability to police, maintain public safety and raise revenue. The workload is not only immense, but it can be tedious and repetitive, as well as thankless.
Judge Hileman didn’t mind, seeing it as an opportunity to have some bearing and influence over the day-to-day lives of his fellow Whitefish residents.
“’Overqualified’ is a good way to describe the advice Bill was getting from some of his peers and colleagues prior to his decision to run for city judge,” said Terry Trieweiler, who, prior to serving on the Montana Supreme Court for a dozen years, shared a practice with Hileman. “One interesting thing that set Bill apart from other lawyers is that, when he got out of law school, he got into the commercial end of the practice. He was focused almost exclusively on transactional law. But unlike a lot of the people who get into those fields, he never lost his enthusiasm for the principles of law. He was very smart, first or second in his class, but he also had a reverence for the profession. But rather than having that reverence whittled down over time, he always kept his idealism. So for him, this was an opportunity to fulfill those interests in the fundamental principles of law that he didn’t necessarily have time to fulfill when he was developing his practice. He was so excited about it. It was like he was going back to law school.”
At the time of his death, Judge Hileman was running unopposed for a second four-year term, his name appearing alone on the mail-in ballots that have been circulating to voters leading up to the Nov. 2 election.
Because the city is currently relying on support from seated judges in neighboring jurisdictions to carry out the daily responsibilities of municipal court judge, Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said the city council is moving forward with the process to appoint Hileman’s successor. The city has begun advertising for the appointed position with applications due Nov. 10. The Whitefish City Council will then appoint the interim position through Dec. 31, 2023.
According to Montana law, the position of municipal judge must be elected during a city’s general election, which is held in odd years. Therefore, Smith said she anticipates an election will be held in November 2023 with the four-year term starting Jan. 1, 2024.
“Whitefish Municipal Court Judge Hileman will be remembered as a respected member of the Whitefish community and for his dedication to public service,” Smith wrote in a statement. “He served with integrity and purpose, but also shared his joy of fun facts, humor, and photography with his team and coworkers. The City of Whitefish extends its sincere condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.”
Hileman is survived by his wife, Susan Lacosta, and their twin daughters Hayley and Holly, whose arrival sparked a transformative change in the attorney who valued work as much as he did play.
“Hayley and Holly were everything to him,” Dan Hileman said. “The day those girls were born is the day the real Bill Hileman emerged. And I was very proud of him as I watched that transformation from young professional and man about town into the father and family man. They were his life.”
Born in Conrad on May 24, 1952, he moved to Kalispell as a young boy and later graduated from Flathead High School. He attended the University of Montana in Missoula, where he went on to complete his juris doctorate at the University of Montana School of Law.
According to the obituary provided by his family, Hileman was a dedicated musician throughout high school, college, and law school, playing drums and singing in a band called Oaken Lyon. After moving to Whitefish, he and his friends formed a different group called the “Average Brothers Band.”
Five years his junior, Dan Hileman often followed in his brother’s footsteps as a young man, attending law school on Bill’s heels. He recalls being startled when he arrived in Missoula for undergraduate studies to find his older brother leading a lifestyle more fitting of a rock-and-roll icon than an aspiring jurist.
“My brother was very smart, and I say that with an awareness that it will come across as biased, but it’s true. He was very bright and he always got good grades, and more than that he had an understanding of a legal problem from start to finish,” Dan said. “But when I arrived in Missoula, those guys were definitely tipping the needle on the fun dial. I saw him having so much fun that I thought, ‘Boy, law school is really the ticket.’”
Upon graduating from law school and starting his own practice in the Flathead Valley, Dan recalls joining Bill on a civil case they filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, a federal jurisdiction that was brand new territory to the younger sibling. When the Hileman brothers arrived for the initial hearing, they appeared before a notoriously stern judge and found themselves outflanked by the defense team.
“Bill assured me he was going to show me the ropes of federal court, but when we walked into the courtroom there was this grumpy judge and eight defense lawyers, and I had no idea what I was doing,” Dan said. “But Bill just gave me this wink, and before he could even start talking the judge just starts annihilating us. He’s talking about the deficiencies in our pleading and all these other problems and what do we have to say for ourselves. So Bill, very calmly, says, ‘My brother Dan is going to handle that part of the argument.’ And he sits back down. I just got my head chopped off.”
“People talk about my brother like he had a halo over his head, but the perspective of a little brother is slightly different,” Dan said. “He loved pulling tricks on people. But he had such a big heart, it just endeared him to everyone.”
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