POLSON – A former Montana State Supreme Court justice is filling in as Lake County justice of the peace after the abrupt resignation of Judge Chuck Wall last week.

Wall, midway through his third term as justice of the peace, submitted his resignation to the Lake County commissioners at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. It was effective at the end of the day.

In a prepared statement he released Monday, Wall said:

“Judges are – and should be – held to very high standards of conduct, both in their professional and personal affairs. One such standard is that they avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“In an effort to lighten the atmosphere and make both my office and my small-town Montana but very busy courtroom a more enjoyable and less stressful and intimidating place to work and appear, I have said some things that in hindsight were not becoming of a member of the judiciary. No harm was ever intended.”

Wall confirmed to the Missoulian Monday that he was the subject of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau by two members of the court’s staff, and that settlements had been reached in both cases.

Because of confidentiality agreements in the settlements, Wall said he could not comment further without first speaking to his attorney, who was out of town.

Mike Sehestedt, chief legal counsel for the Montana Association of Counties that, among other things, helps county governments obtain insurance coverage, declined to comment on the cases.

***

Meantime, in the wake of Wall’s sudden resignation and the absence of three of the four clerks who worked in the justice of the peace office, Lake County Commission chairman Paddy Trusler said commissioners scrambled last week to keep the court up and running.

Retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz, who lives with her husband in a home near Flathead Lake, agreed to step in while commissioners search for a replacement to serve until Jan. 1.

Commissioner Ann Brower said one of the first things Barz had to do was ask the Montana Supreme Court she once served on to waive a requirement that she complete mandated training before serving as a justice of the peace.

Trusler said the commissioners will meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday, with the hopes of appointing someone to serve out the remainder of the year. Trusler said Barz is not interested in filling in for more than three weeks, and they hope to find someone, perhaps a local attorney, who will accept a temporary appointment and agree not to file and campaign for the job.

The only qualifications required by law in order to run for the job, Trusler said, are that a person “be at least 18 years old, and breathing. And, I think you have to have been a resident of the county for a certain amount of time.”

The justice of the peace position will now appear on the November general election ballot. Interested candidates have until 5 p.m. on Aug. 22 to file for the office with the Lake County Elections Office. Trusler said the job pays approximately $46,000 per year.

The winner in November will fill out the remaining two years of Wall’s term starting Jan. 1.

Wall had been justice of the peace for 10 years. Now, Lake County could see four separate justices of the peace in less than five months.

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Two of the four clerks in the office recently resigned to accept other jobs, and a third is on family medical leave, Trusler said.

“Former employees and elected officials have stepped up to the plate to keep us moving, or I’m not sure what we would have done,” he said. They include former clerk and recorder Ruth Hodges.

In his prepared statement, Wall said he resigned in order to save his family and Lake County citizens the expense of continued legal proceedings, and to “allow my position to be placed on the November ballot for a fair election of my replacement.”

He indicated in both his statement and the resignation he submitted to the commissioners that he planned on entering into private practice in Lake County.

A 1992 graduate of the University of South Carolina, Wall earned his law degree in 1996 from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala.

“I appreciate the trust and confidence you have placed in me,” Wall also said in his statement, “am grateful for the opportunity to have served as your justice of the peace for the past 10 years, and hope that I have made some positive contributions to at least a few people’s lives.”

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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