Gianforte Appoints John Mercer to Replace Embattled Judge in the Flathead

District Court Judge Deborah Kim Christopher resigned earlier this year after the Montana Supreme Court removed her from a child custody case

By Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan

Gov. Greg Gianforte appointed John Mercer to replace District Court Judge Deborah Kim Christopher, who resigned earlier this year after the Montana Supreme Court removed her from a child custody case. Gianforte made the announcement Friday.

“A Polson native, John is an accomplished attorney distinguished by his extensive legal experience and commitment to his community,” Gov. Gianforte said in a statement Friday.

Mercer, a graduate of both the University of Montana and the Northwestern University School of Law, will serve on the Twentieth Judicial District Court, which includes Lake and Sanders counties. Mercer worked in Polson for the better part of his life, as both an attorney for 42 years with the law office of Turnage Mercer & Wall, as well as president of real estate company Heritage Management Co.

Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath notified the governor on March 21 of the vacancy on the court following Christopher’s retirement on April 6.

Christopher had served on the bench for 24 years and said in a March 15 letter to McGrath she said she would be resigning effective April 6. In the letter she said she was the first woman to serve in the Twentieth Judicial District and said it was an “honor and a privilege” to serve as a judge.

In January, the Montana Supreme Court removed Christopher from a case where she unexpectedly took away child custody from the caretaking parent and gave it to the father without either parent requesting it or alleging wrongdoing.

The Judicial Standards Commission brought a formal complaint against Christopher this year for repeatedly missing work without adequate notice or plans, jeopardizing defendants’ rights to speedy trials and due process.

In a separate case, the state health department recently asked the judge to be disqualified, alleging bias.

The governor began his search to replace Christopher on March 25 and the application period closed April 8. The 30 day public comment period ended Thursday.

In his application, Mercer said he believed he had the experience to help with the transition until a new elected judge takes the helm in 2025.

“I believe I can clear up existing backlogs that will benefit current litigants and the new judge,” Mercer said in his application.

Reporter Keila Szpaller contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.