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The city of Missoula is asking District Court to direct the Montana Public Service Commission to dismiss its proceedings with a rival buyer for Mountain Water Co., saying the city has already been awarded constructive ownership and that any actions taken by the PSC are moot.

When Missoula County District Judge Karen Townsend thinks about her increasing caseload, she often thinks of the phrase "justice delayed is justice denied." 

Child abuse and neglect cases, criminal and juvenile cases are all time-sensitive and take priority, while civil cases like divorces, lawsuits and custody battles are pushed to the bottom of the calendar – with parties often waiting years for resolution.

"We need the help," she told the Missoulian. "We are swamped, and when you don't have folks here working, cases aren't getting decided."

A recent study backs up Townsend's claims.

According to the Montana District Court Judicial Weighted Caseload Study conducted by the National Center for State Courts, District 4 serving Missoula and Mineral counties has a 2.32 judicial deficit. 

In other words, in order to function properly and have room to grow with the population, District 4 needs two more judges and another standing master.

Standing masters handle about half the caseload judges take on and primarily work on domestic and parenting cases, explained District Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps. They cannot conduct trials. The study gives them a judicial weight of 0.5.

In 2014, the four judges and two standing masters took on a total of 6,237 cases in Missoula and Mineral counties.

Of those cases, Townsend saw an increase of 236 sanity cases – more than any other district in the state. She says there are more criminal cases being filed every year, and child abuse and neglect cases are continually on the increase.

"I think we have to keep in mind the community itself keeps growing, so just with more bodies living in the community that creates demand in the courts, just like with any other services as well," Townsend said. 


District 11 in Flathead County is also approximately two judges short, while District 20 in Lake and Sanders counties doesn't have a judicial deficit.

Ravalli County, or District 21, could benefit from a standing master, the study suggests. 

The study further contends that Montana as a whole needs approximately 16 more judges to adequately handle the caseload. Yellowstone County alone needs to nearly double its judicial staff. The study suggests that in addition to its six district judges, Billings could use another five to fulfill its caseload. 

"That should be dealt with,"  Deschamps said. "But they ain't got no place to put 'em."

Missoula County on the other hand will have the space for another judge's chambers once the courthouse renovation is completed.

The Montana Legislature ultimately decides how much funding each district receives, but that is often based on the recommendation of the district court council, chaired by the Montana Supreme Court's chief justice, four district judges, county commissioners and an array of other players.

When it comes down to the judge's salary, staff and benefits, one judge costs the state about $1 million per year, a hefty price tag by any standards.

"I can't imagine any Legislature is going to give us $16 million more," Townsend said. 

Since 2001, when the courts' budgets were taken over by the Legislature, several districts have received another judge, including Yellowstone, Gallatin and Flathead counties, Deschamps said.  

Missoula, on the other hand, hasn't added a judge since the late 1970s, when Judge Douglas Harkin took office. Of course, at that time, District 4 covered Lake, Sanders, Ravalli and Mineral counties. 

Part of the reason the district hasn't been granted another judge is because Missoula and Mineral counties look like they have more resources than they actually do, Deschamps said.

There was a controversy about how to count a standing master in the yearly study. At one point, the standing master was counted as the equivalent of a judge, even though they don't take on nearly as many cases.

Deschamps contends Judge John Larson's court also has additional resources that were grandfathered in when the state assumed the budgets. 

There also may be another, more political reason that Missoula isn't getting the judicial resources it needs, he said.    

"We've been treated a little less generously than some of the other districts in the state," Deschamps said. "Missoula is kind of the pariah. In the state, we are viewed as a hotbed of liberal and weird thinking. Some of the other districts that are viewed as more moderate or mainstream, maybe they get a little more consideration." 

"Something out of Missoula is looked at with a certain amount of suspicion," he continued. "When you are in a partisan arena like you are in the Legislature, it's probably easier when your community is viewed as part of the majority, not the liberal minority." 

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