Only one woman graces the photo lineup of Missoula's District Court judges in the clerk's office, and Karen Townsend retired from that post on Friday.
Indeed, Leslie Halligan also now holds office as a District Court judge. Landee Holloway was appointed to Justice of the Peace in 2016, Judge Kathleen Jenks has been the Municipal Court judge since 2011 and earlier this month, Kathleen DeSoto was sworn in as the new federal magistrate in Missoula.
But, of course, it wasn't always that way. Townsend, 77, built her legal career here before she was the first woman elected to the bench in Missoula County in 2010.
"It was interesting that it took so long," she laughed during an interview Thursday. "But it also, I think, was primarily a factor that we had judges who served a really long time.
"When you look at the way the judiciary is made up now, there are a lot of women," she adds, following up by naming nearly all of the women across the state who sit at on the District Court bench.
In talking to Townsend, it appears she's pondered less about being the first woman to don the robe here than the cases that had widespread impact, like City of Missoula vs. Mountain Water Co. and State of Montana vs. Jordan Johnson.
After nine years on the job, Townsend offers a simple reason to hang up the robe.
"I think the brain has still been working and my health is good, but there just comes a time," she said Thursday.
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst this week lauded Townsend's career in the courts.
"She's had a long an honorable career in public service," Pabst said. "She has been a mentor and role model for a lot of attorneys."
As a judge, Townsend's reach has extended beyond the courtroom to training law students and Justice Court judges on search and seizure cases, something she's especially proud of.
"We have an obligation here to do things right, to not try and cut corners and cheat our way into getting a conviction, even if it's for a terrible, terrible crime," she said. "It protects us all."
Townsend came to Missoula to attend law school in the early-1970s, after a stint as an educator in Honolulu and in Bozeman. She was married and had a son, which seemed to be a sticking point for the admissions office when she came here to interview.
"They asked me, 'what does your husband and son think about you leaving and coming to law school?'" she recalled. "This was in 1972, so they could no longer ask that question and fly, but they did."
It wasn't a common career path for women at that time, but Townsend said she had been inspired by the lawyers from the California Legal Services organization who had been helping immigrant farm workers there. Her address changed when her husband took a job at the University of Montana the following year and Townsend was finally accepted to the law school, one of nine women in a class of 75. The prior year? Seven women. Just two in the class before that.
"It was right when things were starting to change," she said.
The class behind Townsend's brought 14 women into the program, she said.
You have free articles remaining.
In 1976, then-County Attorney Robert "Dusty" Deschamps hired Townsend at the prosecutor's office. They would later run against each other in 2006 for the judgeship Deschamps holds today.
"The County Attorney's Office was not a plum job by any means, the pay was crappy," Deschamps said Friday. "But I didn't have any qualms about hiring women, many of them were better than the men, and Karen was one of them."
Townsend's time in the Missoula County Attorney's Office was broken up by two stints: one taking a special statewide prosecutor role while working for then-Attorney General Marc Racicot, and later to the American College of Trial Lawyers, where she trained prosecutors from around the country.
Townsend still remembers many of the cases that have left something of a scar on her memory, details of child homicides and sexual assault cases with victims she's long kept in touch with. By 2002, Townsend had been made chief deputy county attorney. That was the year of Cody Marble's fateful charges on false claims of sexual assault. The conviction was overturned in 2017.
Townsend is now named as a defendant in Marble's civil complaint filed against Missoula officials in search of compensation for the years of his life wrongfully imprisoned, a lawsuit that defendants have not yet responded to since it was filed in January. Townsend said this week it wasn't her case, but considers the overturned conviction as a historic moment for Montana's judiciary.
"Any time that there's an overturning of a verdict in a criminal case, that is important," she said.
Townsend won her office by a wide margin in 2010 with 72% of the vote to become the first woman on that wall of men in judge's robes. But perhaps Missoula was ready for a woman to swing the gavel by then. Her opponent, now-Standing Master Brenda Desmond, could have held the same title.
Still, Townsend said, "It was an honor."
When Townsend looks back at the Mountain Water case — which has splintered into several cases by now, involving the Department of Revenue and several millions of dollars in attorney's fees — she remembers thinking how condemnation laws were such a tangled mess to untie.
"They're really designed to take a piece of property," she said. "It was incredibly complex."
But, she said the case was marked by excellent lawyers on both sides, making her job both easier and more challenging when it came time to make a decision. Today, the City of Missoula administers its residents' water system.
On the criminal side, the case of former University of Montana star quarterback Jordan Johnson will always be a standout to Townsend, if not the most stressful to her and her staff, she said.
"It was primarily just watching the tension that was in the courtroom the whole time," she said. "You went home and you were just exhausted."
The case's bombshell publicity was particularly surprising to Townsend, whose family on the East Coast would occasionally see her on the bench over national television. The case, in which Johnson was found not guilty of rape, served as the centerpiece of John Krakauer's book titled, "Missoula."
Next month, as a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Townsend will host Krakauer in a one-on-one discussion on stage at the organization's annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.
After nine years on the bench, she considers the qualities needed for a good judge to be a strong work ethic, temperament and decisiveness. Each of those she described in her successor, Jason Marks, who also comes from the Missoula prosecutor's office as Chief Deputy County Attorney.
"He has got terrific temperament, and he's really smart," she said. "He has good judgement, and that is something that you cannot be taught."