District Court Judge Resigning During Judicial Standards Complaint

Lake and Sanders County Judge Kim Christopher, whose ruling in a high-profile child custody case was labeled a ‘gross injustice’ by Supreme Court justices, is resigning effective April 6


A legally embattled state district court judge is stepping down from the bench in early April, creating a vacancy in Montana’s 20th Judicial District. 

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath notified Gov. Greg Gianforte on March 21 of Judge Deborah “Kim” Christopher’s intent to vacate her seat. Gianforte has the legal authority to fill empty spots on the bench, though the replacement he picks will serve only until the first Monday of January 2025, at which point the victor in the 2024 election for the district’s judgeship will take over. 

Christopher’s resignation was first reported by the Lake County Leader

Christopher, who was the first female judge in her district and sat on the bench for almost 24 years, has been enmeshed in several controversies in recent months. In January, the Montana Supreme Court removed Christopher from a Lake County child custody case after she’d ordered that a 5-year-old should be immediately removed from her mother’s custody in Elmo and placed with her father in Oregon, despite tenuous connections between the child and father. The high court called the order a “misapplication of the law” and the cause of a “gross injustice.” 

The court reversed Christopher’s decision, writing that she had ruled based on her personal feelings toward the parents and sided with the father to punish the mother and “to deliberately subject [the child] to potential trauma in a misguided attempt to ‘develop the stress muscles’ of a child that the court believed had been overly protected by his mother and grandmother.”

Courtroom recordings also revealed that Christopher called the mother a “bitch” when talking to staff after a hearing, as reported by the Daily Montanan.

One attorney in the case later filed a misconduct complaint against Christopher before the Judicial Standards Commission, the state’s judicial discipline body. And in a separate matter, a lawyer representing the commission filed a complaint against Christopher for missing work and canceling hearings without lining up a replacement. The complaint alleged she violated Rule 2.5 of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct, which provides that a judge “shall perform judicial and administrative duties competently and diligently.” 

And in yet another matter, also reported by the Daily Montanan, the Department of Public Health and Human Services in January moved to disqualify Christopher from presiding over a case because, it said, she had failed to rule on motions in a timely manner, had made biased comments in her rulings and had contacted parties without their attorneys present. 

Her April 6 resignation will effectively end the proceedings against her before the Judicial Standards Commission. 

In a letter announcing her resignation to McGrath, Christopher said that it’s been an honor and privilege to be a judge.

“I didn’t get it right all the time and I was always thankful to know if I got it wrong, there were seven Supreme Court Justices who would fix it,” Christopher wrote. “Given the incredible power held by a district judge with people’s lives, children, money, property, and futures, the position has always weighed heavily on me.”

Christopher had filed to run for re-election ahead of Montana’s March 11 filing deadline. Her resignation should clear the path for the race’s other declared candidate, Polson criminal defense attorney Britt Cotter, to take her place come January. 

In the meantime, though, Gianforte is soliciting applicants to carry out the remainder of Christopher’s term. Would-be replacements have until April 8 to submit applications, after which the governor’s office will field public comment. The appointment deadline is June 8.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.