Missoula County Court House

The Missoula County Courthouse stands at 200 W. Broadway in Missoula.

A state commission considering contenders for an upcoming vacancy on Missoula's District bench has forwarded four names to Gov. Steve Bullock, who will appoint the new judge.

The Montana Judicial Nomination Commission sprinted through 10 interviews on Monday with each applicant vying to replace Judge Karen Townsend, who retires Aug. 30. Townsend was the first woman elected as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District, covering Missoula and Mineral counties. 

While all four nominees are men, their legal backgrounds are diverse. They are listed here in descending order of votes from the commissioners.

Travis Dye, who garnered seven votes from the commission, comes from medical and dental malpractice defense practice, with a deep background in civil matters. Thinning out a daunting caseload, he said, could be accomplished by a judge's earlier involvement in cases to quash early disputes between parties. Like Shane Vannatta, who was most recently appointed as judge in Missoula District Court, Dye has also served as a substitute justice of the peace for the county. 

Jason Marks, chief deputy Missoula County attorney, earned six votes from the commission. Marks oversees the criminal and civil divisions within the county prosecutor's office, and said Monday he believes he has more experience than other candidates in bringing cases through to trial. While his wife is employed in the prosecutor's office, Marks appeared to chill concerns of potential impartiality with a long list of criminal defense attorneys who submitted letters of recommendation on his behalf to the commission.

Larry Mansch and Michael Sherwood each received from the commission four votes, the threshold to reach the next step in the appointment process. 

Mansch is senior counsel for the Montana Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful conviction cases across the state and has done so for five men since 2016. He also supervises law students through the organization. Previously he served as a public defender for 20 years. 

Sherwood, who also comes from a criminal defense background, spent considerable time on Monday preaching the good done by the holistic defense practiced by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal office, which connects defendants through resources and rehabilitation programs. If appointed, he said he hopes to be a greater proponent of the tool to reduce recidivism. 

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Much of the questioning from the commission hung on judicial temperament, how candidates might conduct themselves in court, as well as the candidates' balance on precedent and flexibility in rulings.

Commission member Judge John Brown, of the 18th Judicial District Court covering Gallatin County, said the qualities that brought candidates into the next round were experience, length of experience, diversity in practice, public comment and recommendations, and electability. Whoever is selected by Bullock will run to keep the office in 2020.

Bullock is required by law to make his appointment within 30 days of receiving the names from the commission. 

This round of applicants was fully loaded compared to other districts with recent vacancies, Brown said. Only three applied to fill a recent vacancy in Havre, he said, and the same turned out for the job in Hamilton. 

"There's a lot of people interested in it, and it's a high-profile job and it's an important job," he said. "Missoula's lucky. There's a lot of really smart, excellent, qualified people."

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