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James Manley named new Lake County district judge
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James Manley named new Lake County district judge

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POLSON – Polson lost a law firm Friday morning, but Lake and Sanders counties got a new District Court judge.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced his appointment of James A. Manley as judge in Montana’s 20th Judicial District, two days after interviewing the three finalists chosen by Montana’s Judicial Nomination Commission.

Manley, 64, replaces C.B. McNeil, who retired in September after 29 years on the bench.

The new judge said he had been on the path to retiring himself, and “which I looked forward to.” He only applied after several other judges and attorneys encouraged him to do so when McNeil announced his plans last April.

“I never aspired to be a judge,” Manley said Friday. “I thought, after 35 years of litigation, it’s like nothing ever happens at the right time, but this did.”

In his application to the commission, Manley wrote, “I decided that this community is important to me and my family, and if the commission and governor believe I am the best-qualified applicant, I should practice what I have preached, and it is time for me to give back to the community and the profession that have been good to me and my family.”

Manley said he tentatively anticipates being sworn in on Nov. 1.

“I’ve got to close up 35 years of practice, and have a handful of cases to withdraw from,” said the owner-practitioner of Manley Law Firm. His daughter, attorney Ann Moderie, had already decided to leave the firm at some point and return to school with the goal of eventually teaching law, he said, but will continue to practice out of her home.

Manley, who will fill out the final 14 months of McNeil’s fifth six-year term, also said he expects to run for the job in the 2014 elections.

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A 1967 graduate of Missoula’s Sentinel High School, Manley earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Montana in 1973 and his law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., in 1978.

He revealed in his application that during his teenage and college years he had pleaded guilty “to city court citations involving underage drinking and generally disorderly type conduct,” the most serious of which he believed had resulted in a $25 fine.

Manley is a Vietnam War veteran and was named Montana’s Trial Attorney of the Year in 2009.

He started his law career as a prosecutor, working as a deputy county attorney for Lake County for a year. For the next 15 years, he was a “country lawyer practicing in a wide area of law,” handling everything from real estate contracts to homicide jury trials, and served as city attorney for both St. Ignatius and Hot Springs as well.

For the past 20 years, he said, 90 percent of his practice has focused on civil cases such as wrongful death, brain injury, insurance coverage and insurance bad faith.

Prior to being admitted to the bar, Manley said he worked as a dishwasher, grocery store box boy, shoe salesman and cement finisher. He worked nights and summers in lumber and plywood mills to put himself through UM, and worked as a high school English and journalism teacher, and football and wrestling coach, to put himself through law school.

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Six people applied to the Judicial Nomination Commission for the opening. The process drew extra attention last month when the commission rejected one of the applicants, Lake County Justice of the Peace Joey Jayne, prior to conducting interviews.

In her application, Jayne used a modified version of a court filing provided to her for a similar case she was working on, that had originated at Manley’s firm, as an example of her own legal writing. Jayne blamed her “inattention to the application instructions” and said it had not been her intent to mislead anyone, but also said she felt she had been singled out for scrutiny.

The commission interviewed the remaining five applicants: Manley, Lake County chief deputy prosecutor Mark Russell, Polson attorneys John Schulte and James Raymond, and Steven Eschenbacher, managing attorney at the Polson Office of the State Public Defender.

Manley, Russell and Schulte’s names were forwarded to the governor.

The new judge said that over 29 years, he wound up in McNeil’s courtroom with cases and trials many times – and even worked with McNeil more than three decades ago on one case before McNeil became a judge – a successful appeal of a criminal case to the Montana Supreme Court.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Manley said Friday. “There’s a lot about how he did things that we all learned from. He was the most efficient judge in the state by far. I think he said once that the longest anyone had to wait on a ruling from him was 10 days, and you can wait weeks, months, even years sometimes. He was an efficient, effective and organized judge.”

McNeil was the 20th Judicial District’s first-ever judge – the 20th was carved out of the 4th District, based in Missoula, in 1984, when the caseload there became more than its judges could handle. Since then, a second judge has been added in the 20th, and Kim Christopher holds that position.

One of Manley’s first cases will be related to the charged battle over a proposed reserved water rights compact and water use agreement on the Flathead Reservation. Two irrigation districts will be asking Manley to halt a referendum vote requested by the Flathead Joint Board of Control, which the two districts are in the process of withdrawing from.

The complex case is comprised of five files with 105 documents, including previous orders by both McNeil and the Montana Supreme Court. Many of the documents are in excess of 40 pages apiece, and the files are 7 1/2 inches thick.

“It’ll be all of interesting,” Manley said of his new career. “I gather there will be enough to keep me busy from Day One.”

​Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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