U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen sat on a different side of the judge’s bench Friday afternoon and did something he’s not prone to do in the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse.
He smiled, hugely, throughout a special private naturalization ceremony.
When it was over, his longtime friend and fellow federal judge Donald Molloy had proclaimed Stephanie Christensen, Dana’s wife of 39 years, a U.S. citizen.
“Once in awhile something happy happens in here,” said Judge Christensen, who takes turns administering one of the three public naturalization rituals at the Missoula courthouse each year.
Stephanie Christensen isn’t your typical immigrant.
Until Friday she was a Canadian citizen, raised in Kelowna, British Columbia. But she went to boarding school for three years in Tacoma, Wash., and after a year of college in Montreal, finished her university career at Stanford University in California.
That’s where she met Dana, a graduate of Sentinel High School in 1969. He returned to Missoula after graduation to attend law school at the University of Montana, and the two were married in 1974.
They’ve lived in Montana virtually ever since – Billings at first, then for 30 years in the Flathead Valley before Dana was appointed to the federal bench in Missoula two years ago.
“I never suggested to her one way or the other that she should become a United States citizen,” Dana said. “This is a decision that she’s made entirely on her own. But it does mean a lot to me, particularly because of my job and the fact that she has been so engaged.”
“I actually said to myself if (Barack) Obama got elected I would become a citizen, and then I never got around to it. There was always some excuse,” said Stephanie. “Then he got elected again, so I figured it was time.”
She’s long been active on nonprofit boards and even political campaigns, her husband noted.
“She’s been a full citizen in every respect except she’s never had that opportunity to vote,” he said. “Whenever an election rolled around she’d say, ‘Boy, I wish I could vote.’ So here we are.”
The 15-minute ceremony took place in front of a few friends and court staff. The Christensens’ son Ben brought his family from Bozeman – a nice way to kick off their Christmas visit, Stephanie noted.
She proudly carried her granddaughter, 21-month old Isla, into the courtroom. Ben’s wife, Anja, is also from British Columbia.
“We just got married a few years ago, so I have to wait until next year (to apply for citizenship). Then I’ll go through this, too,” Anja said.
Stephanie said the process was surprisingly smooth.
“It actually went really quickly. I started in July and I had my interview in October. After that, I could have been sworn in at any time,” she said.
She was told her options for the naturalization ceremony were twofold, in November in Great Falls or Thursday in Butte. The November date didn’t work – Stephanie was in Seattle where daughter Cassidy gave birth to identical twin girls two months ago.
“I just kind of said, well, how about Missoula? My husband actually does this once in awhile,” Stephanie said.
“They seemed to think that wasn’t possible,” she added with a smile, “but there are people here who made it happen.”
One of them was Molloy. A friend of the Christensens since he and Dana were classmates in law school, Judge Christensen asked him to do the swearing-in honors.
“It’s a tremendous honor to welcome you as a new citizen of the United States after so many years of listening to the thundering velvet voice of your husband and his excited political utterances with no opportunity to cancel his voice or to join it,” Molloy told Stephanie.
Naturalization, or “granting the right to participate in the nebulous notion of liberty,” is one of the few enjoyable things a federal judge gets to do, he added.
“As I’m sure Dana has told you, so much of what we do as judges is really to constrain liberty and revoke the franchise from those who are unfortunate enough to end up in our courts.”