BILLINGS - The move to senior status of two of Montana's three federal district judges virtually ensures that the Obama administration will get to appoint their replacements, probably next year.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull in Billings announced in October that he will go on senior status in March 2013.

On Friday, the move to senior status for U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Great Falls was announced on the webpage of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senior status is a form of semi-retirement for federal judges who continue to hear cases with a reduced workload.

Haddon, 75, could not be reached Friday for comment. The 9th Circuit page said he would go on senior status by the end of this year.

That would mean that when Cebull, 68, takes senior status in March, it will leave U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula, who took his post only last December, as Montana's only active federal district judge.

How soon it will be before new judges to replace Cebull and Haddon take the bench is uncertain. The selection process for the lifetime appointment is thorough, and a nominee could get stuck in a logjam of judicial nominees awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and a former University of Montana law professor, said it may be late spring before there are nominees.

"There is fair amount of stuff that has to happen," he said.

Cebull and Haddon semi-retiring within months of each other puts more pressure on the selection process, he said.

"I don't think it's an emergency, but you want to move expeditiously to have active judges. I think the time for dawdling is over," Tobias said.

Christensen will have help from Cebull, Haddon and Montana's three other senior judges, Don Molloy in Missoula, Jack Shanstrom of Billings and Charles Lovell of Helena, Tobias said.

The appointment process for the federal bench is partly political.

The president nominates a candidate for Senate confirmation after conferring with the senior senator — in this case, Democrat Max Baucus — from the state in which the judge will serve.

Baucus will take steps to submit recommendations "at the appropriate time,” said Kathy Weber, a Baucus spokeswoman.

Tobias and Montana lawyers who participated in the selection process for Christensen expect Baucus to do what he has done in past nominations — appoint an advisory committee of attorneys to review and recommend a short list of candidates and to consult with junior Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on forwarding names to the White House.

Once a person is nominated, the candidate goes through an FBI background check and is reviewed and rated by the American Bar Association, Tobias said.

As for possible candidates for the judgeships, Tobias said it could be time for a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Christensen’s practice was defense litigation in medical malpractice cases.

Other possibilities include federal magistrate judges, state Supreme Court justices or state District Court judges and practicing attorneys, including American Indian lawyers, Tobias said.

Karla Gray, retired chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, said a candidate’s experience in federal court is important because the federal system is significantly different from the state system.

Gray and Tobias both said female lawyers should be considered. Montana is one of about 15 of the 94 judicial districts that have not had a female district court judge, Tobias said.

“That kind of diversity is important,” said Gray, who was Montana's first female chief justice and first elected female justice. “The federal (bench) in Montana, with the sole exception of Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby, has been and continues until now to be entirely male."

Two female attorneys have confirmed an interest.

Martha Sheehy of Billings said she is interested in Cebull's judgeship. She declined to comment further.

Sheehy, whose husband is Sidney Thomas, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge based in Billings, co-chaired the advisory committee to Baucus when Christensen, 60, was picked last year to replace U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula, who went to senior status. She also is on the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission.

Sheehy has practiced law for 24 years, including the past 13 years in her own firm. She also represents The Billings Gazette.

Billings attorney Carey Matovich also confirmed an interest.

"I would be very honored to serve in that capacity," she said Friday.

Matovich, of Matovich, Keller & Murphy, has practiced law for more than 31 years. She has a general practice of civil and trial work.

Another prominent female attorney, Montana Supreme Court Justice Pat Cotter, said Thursday that she might be interested under different circumstances but that she intends to fulfill her commitment to a full term on the state's high court.

Cotter was re-elected in 2008 to a second, eight-year term on the bench. Cotter’s husband is U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter.

A federal district judgeship is “an extremely unique and important job” because of the effect a judge’s decision has on people's lives, said Missoula attorney Milt Datsopoulos, who co-chaired the advisory committee with Sheehy.

“Montana has a lot of not only good, but extraordinary lawyers. I think there will be a pool of applicants that can produce really a superb candidate,” Datsopoulos said.

Datsopoulos said his top three criteria for candidates are judicial temperament, professional achievement and experience and “intellectual firepower.”

Because a judge has “extraordinary power” to influence and affect people’s lives, a judge should have “the patience and I think the compassion to deal with people’s problems,” he said.

Datsopoulos also said an American Indian should be on the selection committee that recommends candidates because American Indians have a big stake in the federal system.

All major crimes on most of the Indian reservations in Montana are prosecuted in federal court, where laws and sentencing are more severe than in state court.

Both Cebull and Shanstrom served as federal magistrates before being appointed district judges by President George W. Bush and confirmed together in 2001.

A magistrate judge is appointed by a majority of the active judges in a district and hears civil and misdemeanor criminal cases and conducts arraignments. Unlike federal judgeships, which are a lifetime appointment, a federal magistrate is appointed for eight years.

A magistrate judge's salary is $160,080. A federal district judge is paid $174,000 a year.

Meanwhile, a misconduct investigation by a 9th Circuit panel into Cebull is still pending. Cebull earlier this year forwarded on email from his office computer that contained a crude and racist joke involving President Obama.

Tobias said he expects Cebull will continue to stay active on senior status, calling him “very professional and very hard-working."

Nationally, there are 83 federal judiciary vacancies currently with 44 pending nominations, some of which have been pending for more than a year. That’s slightly less than 10 percent for all 874 federal judgeships. There are 19 anticipated vacancies with two nominations pending.

“The question is, how long would (a nomination) sit in the White House,” where nominations haven’t been happening that quickly, Tobias said.

The vacancy rate has been high since 2009, when the vacancies reached 90 positions and have fluctuated since then from about 70 to 100, Tobias said.

“I think the Republicans haven’t cooperated very much,” Tobias said. The Republicans, he continued, say the president hasn’t nominated enough people.

“But if they’re not moving them, what’s the point?” he said.

Nineteen nominees are awaiting floor votes by the Senate, but Republicans are not agreeing to those votes, he said. When there is vote, the person usually is confirmed by an overwhelming vote, he said.

The backlog of nominees has created problems for some districts, which are down one-third to one-half of their complement of judges, and ultimately it slows justice, Tobias said.

Tobias expects confirmation for Cebull’s and Haddon's replacements to be “relatively smooth” but that could depend on whether Republicans are more willing to cooperate than in President Obama’s first term.

“That is not clear yet,” he said.

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(25) comments

Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap

Except for wolves, one would be hard pressed to look at a federal court decision and guess as to which party appointed the judge authoring the decision. We have a fairly solid judiciary in this state, both federal and state. On the criminal side the evidentiary rulings and sentencing is uniform among the divisions in the Montana District. The work horses on the civil side are the magistrates. They all do a good job. If President Obama picks good judges they will get appointed quickly, as Judge Christensen was.

RPT
RPT

Pray that your child is never murdered by one of the drunks our courts and judges are allowing to drive our streets so you don’t have to find out first hand just how ‘Good’ a job their really doing.

TourGuide
TourGuide

Dang Muralist. This is the second post of yours that I have seen tonight and I have to say, your killing it!

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

hehe.....if the Senate changes its rules in January so the idiot GOP can't filibuster every nomination it will be a miracle. I am hoping all the right wing conspiracy theorists here can present some facts at some point other than Obama is going to appoint and that makes them terrible choices. You don't even know who he is appointing as yet!!! Shows what bigots and closed minds you all have...don't get upset until you know who the new judges will be. Then after you gripe about the appointees ( cause Obama never does anything right..LOL oh, and is the cause of all things including Sandy, sunspots and any the last solar eclipse) we will ignore you...because guess what??? We won the election!! You know I had to deal with that mental midget Bush and his lies and war monger Vice President for 8 years, now we return the favor and at least know there are enough people in this country that do not buy in to this ridiculous conspiracy theory junk and lack of facts. The world is a better place now that I know all of you are just irritated and feeling the country is doomed. Really pathetic..as usual...

TourGuide
TourGuide

Wow! Look at them wing nuts!

sportscaster
sportscaster

Two more nails in our coffin coming right up!

Wrongfully Evicted
Wrongfully Evicted

My life has been destroyed by Judges. God was always present. I used to have a career, a very important one, until judges just could not stay off me. I was never guilty of any crime, just their assumptions and false accusations. I never saw any common sense out of any of them, the sense was to destroy my life, my families life, Steal my money, then have me illegally arrrested. Once I got out, charges dismissed, I had no one or anything left. I still have nothing, don't for see getting any of it back. And Im not paying another fine to any entity, never again!

fomerliberal
fomerliberal

Well, once we have all Liberals for Fed. Judges you can kiss natural resource developement in MT goodbye. The extreme enviro groups will use them to shut down all , oil, gas and coal production in MT. Now we will have 3 Judge Malloy clones.

Wrongfully Evicted
Wrongfully Evicted

We the people has always meant We the Illuminati. Don't be a fool, if you have never sued or tried to sue a judge in any state, you would have been told you can do so, if you go by the Vatican rules, what makes some a choir boy. Now that seems the theft of freedom of religion to me. I'm not catholic, they killed the disciples and hung statues up with their faces. The real catholic church was moved to Istanbul Turkey, before the Romans took over. You catholic belong to the Roman Catholic Church, not the same as Peter's church he built upon the rock i.e. Rome.Research Constatine II and Constatinopal

Curmudgeon
Curmudgeon

Wrongfully, you should probably lay off that Holiday Rum Cake, too.

Wrongfully Evicted
Wrongfully Evicted

We need to fight this with everything. If you trust any of your presidents you are simply nuts. check other states out, Obama is going to place too much power at every state level, then send people, your army and National guard to arrest you, jail you and kill you. Were you aware there are new prisons inside each new NG Armory they just built in every big city? Anyone know the true reason behind those being built? You all need to know that answer so get your head around it. The US army has just leveled the playing filed wiping out foreign countries who used to be able to stand up to our Illuminati ran army. Now the Illuminati are simply going to take over in the next three years to come. Do not let Obama run three terms, he plans that.

Curmudgeon
Curmudgeon

Wrongfully Evicted, you really should take it a little more easy on all that Holiday Eggnog.

Lyle
Lyle

To bad for Montana!!!!!! Now the Fed. Gov. will take over, no longer "We the people". Just watch how many jobs will be lost do to enviro new laws by these judges!

Curmudgeon
Curmudgeon

And that's what LYLE's tea-leaf reading tells us...and if you can't trust LYLE's crystal ball or his tarot cards, what can you trust?

C Wick
C Wick

Here comes Agenda 21.

Kahlotus
Kahlotus

And here come the right wing nut jobs crawling out of the woodwork.

Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson

Carrie Matovich would be an excellent choice.

BWO
BWO

Good, fewer Hillbilly judges in Montana!

elkguy
elkguy

God help us.

walter12
walter12

Oh goody, tow more arch leftists to mess with this things in this state.

Curmudgeon
Curmudgeon

Oh, goody, maybe even TWO more, Walter12.

RPT
RPT

ALL judges should be elected and subjected to term limits.. Every one of them,
NO ONE should be given that much power.

JayJ
JayJ

Oh goody .... Two thumbs down

dsrobins
dsrobins

At last, Montana will be rid of that awful racist bigot judge in Billings named Cebell. Good riddance!

TourGuide
TourGuide

Wait for it...

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