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Karen Townsend pauses from the file she's reading at her desk on the third floor of the Missoula County Courthouse. With laughter in her voice, she explains that it is filled with excuses from people who are trying to get out of jury duty.

It's Tuesday, and this is Townsend's first real workday at her new job as Missoula's first elected female District Court judge.

The past few days have been a heady experience for Townsend: On Monday, the newest member of the 4th District Court was sworn into office with her granddaughter on her lap. With each passing moment, she is realizing a dream come true.

"I am so honored to be here," Townsend says joyfully. "It is truly an honor to be a Missoula District Court judge."


Townsend looks around her spacious office, and by her own admission describes it as "cushy."

It has a magnificent view of the Bitterroot Mountains, and enough room to easily seat six people at the conference table next to her expansive desk.

But it's not the dignified quarters she cares about - it's the robe and the responsibility that comes with it.

"People expect you to be prepared. People expect you to be fair and unbiased," she explains. "And I expect I will be getting excellence from lawyers who appear in front of me."

It is safe to say that Townsend's journey to the top of the courthouse was quite different from that of her colleagues - Dusty Deschamps, John Larson and Ed McLean, the judges with whom she shares the bench.

Before she entered law school at the age of 31, Townsend, who is the daughter of a lawyer, was a schoolteacher, a school counselor and mother.

"I didn't think about being a lawyer, even though my dad was one, because it was just something girls didn't do when I was growing up," says Townsend, who is 68. "I know it sounds so wrong, but back then if girls went to work, they worked as teachers and social workers."

She changed her perspective, however, in the late 1960s, inspired by a small group of California lawyers who were using their knowledge of the law to do what she essentially believed to be social work.

"That's when I realized a whole side of the law could be used for really good stuff," Townsend says.

It took a few more years before Townsend found the courage - and the time - to make her career change. Serendipity intervened when her husband, Burke, got a teaching job at the University of Montana, which is also home to a law school.

"It was a real time of change in America, and I was really taken up by that," Townsend explains. "When I entered the University of Montana Law School in 1973, my class had 75 students. Nine of them were women, and seven of them graduated."

There were so few women in the law school then, the equality issues the students were studying in class were playing out in their daily lives.

Shaking her head at the memories, Townsend recalls: "We fought about a ladies bathroom because at the time there was only one in the law school.

"Wow. How times have changed."


Even though she brings to the bench 26 years of experience as a Missoula County deputy attorney and chief deputy attorney, Townsend knows it will take a little time to settle into her new career.

She is especially relieved that Judge Harkin's staff agreed to stay on to help her navigate her new duties.

No matter the frustrations, missteps and other stumbles that come with learning the ropes, Townsend said she's eager for it all.

"I really wanted this job," she says. "I lost my election bid for it in 2006 and when Judge Harkin announced his retirement, I knew this would be my only shot."

Pleased with her decision to run, Missoula voters elected her to office with 21,692 votes - 13,230 more votes than opponent Brenda Desmond received.

"I know I've said this before, but I am so honored to have this opportunity," Townsend says. "I've had two months to prepare for this, and during that time I met with lots of lawyers and others who interact with the courts and asked them for advice and suggestions.

"People have been so gracious and they've all been incredibly helpful in allowing time for me - to help me make the transition."

Townsend said she received one piece of advice she's already taken to heart.

"Judge Harkin told me that as a judge it's important to develop your own personality," she says, "which is one of the reasons I'll be seen wearing a blue robe and not a black one."

She insists she's not flouting the law; rather, she's making a fashion statement on the bench.

"Wearing a black robe is an old tradition that dates back to 1714 when Queen Anne died and the king ordered mourning attire," she explains. "That's when attorneys began wearing black robes and apparently we never got out of mourning."

"Judges are known to wear different colors, and many years ago robe colors were assigned to different courts," says Townsend. "I think it's time for the 4th District Court to get out of mourning."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen


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