BILLINGS — A Lewistown judge who freed convicted killer Barry Beach and got sued in a separate matter by his clerk said Friday he is retiring from the bench.
Judge Wayne Phillips, 63, said he wants to leave the judiciary after two terms before his performance deteriorates.
"A job of district judge is very wearing, and I'm worn out," Phillips said. "I feel like I'm still at the peak of my capacity, so it really is the best thing for the citizens of the district that I leave at the top of my game."
Beach was freed by Phillips in December after serving 29 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. Phillips determined new evidence raised doubts about the guilt of Beach.
A retrial was ordered but is on hold while the state Supreme Court considers the attorney general's appeal of his release.
The 10th Judicial District covers Fergus, Judith Basin and Petroleum counties in central Montana. Lined up to run for the seat being vacated by Phillips are Lewistown attorneys Britt Long and Jon Oldenburg.
Long, who is Phillips former law clerk, sued him last year, claiming she was slapped on the butt with a folder.
Long attempted to press criminal charges against Phillips and sought a restraining order but was turned down by authorities on both matters.
Her lawsuit, which seeks the dismissal of Phillips, is pending before retired state Supreme Court Justice John Warner. Long has said she would press her lawsuit regardless of whether Phillips ran again.
Phillips said the suit had nothing to do with his decision.
"There was no connection between her lawsuit and her filing or any of her nonsense," he said.
Phillips has acknowledged hitting Long with the folder but described it as a harmless "tap" that was not meant to be sexual or threatening. He said her decision to sue him came after he admonished her for job performance and other issues.
It's unclear how Phillips' decision will affect the Beach case. If the Supreme Court quickly upholds his December ruling, the judge said there is still time to hold another trial before his term expires in January.
But he said that becomes less likely if several months pass without a decision from the high court.
Phillips said he has already had job offers in the private sector but has made no decision about what he will do next. He was first elected in 2000 as a write-in candidate and ran unopposed in 2006.
Oldenburg runs a private practice in Lewistown. He did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Long served as Phillips' clerk for three years and prior to that worked at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. She sued the DNRC after leaving the agency, but the case was dismissed in January by a state judge in Helena.