Missoula Municipal Court Judge Marie Andersen confirmed Friday that she was unexpectedly fired this week by head Judge Kathleen Jenks – but a City Hall official said Andersen still has her job, and Jenks denies she terminated her appointee.
Andersen, reached for comment at home, said she has not been on probation and her record contains no disciplinary actions or warnings, but she declined to answer further questions. She directed inquiries about her Thursday dismissal to her attorney.
“At some point, I might be able to talk to you, but right now, I’m not supposed to,” Andersen said. “If I can in the future, I certainly will.”
Andersen is the appointed assistant judge in Missoula Municipal Court and has served since January 2006. Jenks was appointed in November 2011 after Judge Donald Louden retired from his full-time elected position, and she is serving out his term; she will have to run for election in 2013 to remain head of city court.
While Andersen confirmed news she had been fired, city human resource director Gail Verlanic said the judge still has her job “at this particular point,” and the city has not made a determination on the status of her employment.
“We’ve asked to meet with her, so if you can, can you just keep a lid on this for a few days?” Verlanic said.
In a later phone call, Jenks said she has the authority to terminate the assistant judge “at will,” but she did not dismiss Andersen from her post. However, she said she has decided not to reappoint Andersen in December.
“She didn’t get notice of it until Thursday. ... I’ve considered a lot of issues surrounding that for a lot of months,” Jenks said.
Last November, Jenks had no plans to release the assistant judge from her duties. Jenks was selected by the Missoula City Council out of eight candidates who applied to fill out Louden’s term. She came highly recommended to the council and was described as having the “highest ethical persuasion.”
In written responses to questions from councilors, Jenks said she planned to retain Andersen, who also applied for the job of head judge: “While there is value to having an outside view, such as my own, to enhance the current system, there is also value to the experience and continuity achieved by maintaining the current Assistant Judge (Andersen).”
On Friday, she declined to share the reason she’s making a different decision, citing Andersen’s privacy, but she said since the time she told the council she’d keep the assistant judge, she has had 10 months on the job in Municipal Court.
In the past couple of months, Jenks has been under scrutiny for her decision to no longer refer offenders to treatment courts designed to help people with substance abuse and mental health issues get their lives back on track. She earlier told the Missoulian she appreciated the courts’ goals, but said she wasn’t sure the city could afford the “Cadillac” programs.
Andersen, on the other hand, has been active in treatment court, according to county Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who launched what was once known as Mental Health Court. She said it would be fair to say Andersen, who has presided over drug court, was an advocate of the program as well.
On Thursday, the Missoulian published a guest column by Theresa Conley criticizing Jenks’ position on treatment courts. According to a source in City Hall, the opinion piece upset the head judge, and Jenks dismissed Andersen and cited her involvement in the column.
Conley, however, said she wrote the piece herself, and Andersen wasn’t involved and didn’t know she was working on it. Conley coordinated the treatment courts from 2006 through this year.
Jenks confirmed she and the assistant judge clashed on the use of treatment court, but she said their disagreement wasn’t the impetus for the decision against rehiring Andersen.
“You know, I can say that we don’t agree on treatment court, but there are a lot of issues that I’ve considered in making that decision. That is one. It’s not the only one,” Jenks said.
Initially, human resources director Verlanic said the head judge had the authority to end the relationship with the appointed judge “with proper notice” and with “the approval of the administration.”
City communications director Ginny Merriam, though, said Jenks did not need the mayor’s approval in making her decision, and she does not believe the judge requested his input. Chief administrative officer Bruce Bender confirmed Jenks didn’t need or request the administration’s approval, Merriam said.
Jenks, too, said she alone is responsible for the judge who is sitting on the bench, and she herself made the decision against keeping Andersen.
Both the head judge and the mayor are elected, and while they work in separate branches of government, the administration had a strained relationship in the past with former Judge Louden. Asked if she consulted Engen or Bender on her decision, Jenks countered.
“I wouldn’t say that we consulted about it, no. We discussed some administrative issues with the court,” as they do frequently, Jenks said.
She said she does not have a candidate in mind to replace Andersen, and the assistant judge’s job doesn’t expire until the beginning of December.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller @missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.