By KEILA SZPALLER of the Missoulian
Judge Donald Louden doesn't deal with many thugs or hardened criminals in his courtroom.
From the bench, the Missoula municipal judge of 20 years faces community members such as moms who may have forgotten to buckle up. In these cases, court manager Pat Morgan sees the man in the black robe break the ice with the nervous woman, maybe even talking with a child she's brought along.
"Was Mommy not wearing her seat belt?" Morgan has heard him ask. "Does Mommy usually wear her seat belt?"
Sure, the frequent fliers get a more stern approach. Most of the time, though, Morgan said the people in municipal court have only a speeding ticket in hand. For many, it's the first time, too.
"And they've never been to court before, so they're scared," said Morgan, who has worked with Louden for a decade. "They're law-abiding citizens, normally, so he does make people feel at ease."
Louden, an ambassador for the halls of justice to the people appearing before him, is running unopposed for his sixth term as a Missoula Municipal Court judge. There are no term limits to the job, which runs four years. Candidates must be lawyers, and they must live and be registered voters within the county.
On the ballot, electors will vote "yes" or "no," so the job is his to lose. But defeat isn't likely. When he's had opponents, Louden has won handily with 2-to-1 margins. So barring unforeseen calamity, the 58-year-old judge will keep his post and remain the face of Missoula's justice system not to crooks, but to the community at large - regular Joes and Janes who goof up.
"We are the courts that deal with 95 percent of the people who deal with the justice system," Louden said.
That's people who rolled through a stop sign, and underagers who got caught with booze. On the more serious side, it's also people who commit partner and family assaults. He said his job isn't to lecture, but to tell people the penalties and tell them he hopes it's the last time he sees them.
In all cases, he strives to be fair, to mete out justice with an even hand, and to treat people with respect. Take his philosophy on traffic citations, for instance. As many as 40,000 cases run through his courtroom in a year, and most are traffic tickets.
"I believe in the idea people should get one chance in three years to keep a ticket off their driving record," Louden said.
The judge, a man who takes care behind the wheel, said even he gets a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach when the police lights flash behind him, an infrequent occurrence. (Last year, he was stopped because one of his four taillights was out. The taillights were legal, but he had to prove he had insurance. Before that, he slid 5 mph around an icy corner and hit a parked car. And 15 years ago, he was stopped because his car registration was expired by two weeks.)
Once, he sat in the back of a patrol car after being rear-ended. The officer didn't recognize him, but the dispatcher did.
"That's Judge Louden you got in the back seat."
"What do you mean? You want me to take him to jail?"
In the grocery store, Louden can tell when shoppers recognize him, though they don't always say anything to him. He isn't shy, but doesn't crave the notice that comes with being a public figure, either.
"That's just life, and that's part of the job," he said. "My hair is getting white enough, I'm recognizable. I wish I was a little shorter sometimes so I wouldn't stick out."
A judge doesn't have many best friends, and he eschews a busy social calendar in favor of a quiet life in Turah.
"I have one friend in the world," Louden said. "That's my wife."
The courts can tire Louden, even sitting all day long, and he said Song Louden cares for him. That's his better half, he said, although he figures she's more like his better 90 percent. Song, who used to work as a nurse, has fibromyalgia and other conditions.
"She takes care of me emotionally, and I help take care of her physically," he said.
The days in court can take their toll, but some of the things that once bothered Louden don't anymore. He's heard the nicknames, like Let 'em Loose Louden, and Catch and Release. ("That's a name many judges around the state get called.")
The reality is jails are full, and judges decides not who goes in, but who comes out: "We have to release people all the time, and of course, that comes back to you, because you're the one who has to sign the papers."
And plenty of citizens don't get off scot-free, either. Louden said he believes his court doles out more drunken-driving convictions than any court in the state.
But many of the people he lets off the hook are getting traffic tickets, and they're "your neighbor, your mother, your kid," Louden said. "If you get called Catch and Release because you give a person one chance in three years, I don't have a problem with that."
The challenges come Tuesday mornings, though, when he does protective orders. The judge said he takes up roughly 10 a week.
"They're not the easiest cases in the world, dealing with domestic situations and abuse," Louden said.
Since the state revamped the public defender system, some cases drag on more than they used to, and that's another challenge, he said.
"I understand why it happened," Louden said. "There were problems in a lot of places. I don't think there were here."
At times, colleagues suggest he move on from municipal court, and dive into other kinds of cases. But Louden said divorces aren't fun, and it would be difficult for him to deal with violent crimes, such as rapes and assaults.
"(And) I don't necessarily love civil work," he said.
In the people's court, he feels at home, and he wants the job for at least another four years.
"In my mind, this is as important as any other job in the justice system," Louden said.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.