Missoula County Justice Court is a court of limited jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal manners: traffic violations, felony proceedings and misdemeanor charges, small civil claims and landlord/tenant disputes.
Missoula’s court is divided into two departments, each of which is headed by a justice of the peace elected to a four-year term by Missoula County voters. On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether to retain current Department 1 Judge Marie Andersen or replace her with Judge Alex Beal.
Both Andersen and Beal happen to have law degrees, which isn’t a requirement to serve as a justice of the peace, and both are experienced judges familiar with the challenges facing Justice Court. They have also both expressed a strong commitment to overcoming those challenges. The difference is in the details.
Those details give Alex Beal the edge in this nonpartisan race, which is why voters should choose him as the next justice of the peace for Missoula County Justice Court Department 1.
A University of Montana Law School graduate, Beal has practiced law for 13 years as a prosecutor and public defender and in private practice. He has served as an assistant judge in Missoula Municipal Court for the past couple of years, and previously as a substitute judge in Hamilton and Stevensville city courts. He has firsthand experience with Missoula County Justice Court thanks to his time occasionally filling in as a substitute judge in that court as well.
Notably, he has earned endorsements from fellow judges including Missoula Municipal Judge Kathleen Jenks and Missoula County Justice of the Peace for Department 2 Landee Holloway.
Andersen also has a law degree, and has special expertise in representing victims of domestic violence. She was appointed by the Montana Supreme Court to serve on the Commission on Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, and in addition to her duties in Justice Court, co-presides over the local Veterans’ Court and Co-Occurring Court. She has 13 years of judicial experience, including time as an appointed assistant municipal judge and as a substitute justice of the peace before winning election to her current post in 2014.
Unfortunately, Andersen has been dogged by controversy and staff disputes.
In 2012, she filed a federal complaint accusing Judge Jenks of firing her from her position as an assistant Municipal Court judge, but the city countered that she was not actually fired, she was just not reappointed to her position for another year due to concerns about her sleeping on the job and other problems. Eventually the city and Andersen reached an agreement and in 2015 they both asked for the suit to be dismissed.
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Most recently some Justice Court staff who formerly worked under Andersen shared their concerns about the way she manages her office. Their complaints were detailed in a report commissioned by the county Human Rights Department to determine why turnover among Andersen’s staff was so high. The report does not include Andersen’s denials of some accusations or her explanations for others; the report’s authors said she declined to be interviewed.
Andersen chalks it up to a run of bad luck that four managers in her office have resigned or been fired since April 2016. However, staff reported they are “confused, do not receive thorough training, are fearful of retaliation, and concerned about serving the public well."
Although the Human Rights Bureau did not make a formal finding following its report, a settlement agreement dated Oct. 1 awards a former office manager for Andersen more than $19,000 in settlement costs and administrative leave pay. The manager claimed she was fired for cooperating with the county’s investigation into Andersen, a claim which Andersen denies but says she is prohibited from explaining because it is a personnel issue.
Now, Missoula County commissioners are working with both Justice Court departments to create a court administrator position that would help standardize procedures and remove the burden of administration from the judges’ shoulders. Other structural changes are also under discussion, and both Andersen and Beal have stated they are supportive and willing to work to make improvements.
But at a recent meeting with county commissioners, Andersen unexpectedly brought an attorney and argued that commissioners, as members of the executive branch of government, do not have the authority to make sweeping staffing changes to a judicial office. The meeting ended with an agreement that commissioners, Andersen and Holloway will continue to communicate in writing to determine which specific duties should be classified as judicial and which are administrative.
Judges should indeed be free to focus on their judicial duties, leaving administrative tasks to a designated administrator. And Andersen makes a good point that a lack of resources and competitive pay make it a challenge to hire and retain expert staff. But it appears Judge Andersen has spent far too much of her time doing the sort of things better handled by staff.
Both departments in Justice Court have the same issues, but only Andersen’s has been experiencing high turnover. Andersen appears to be a detail-oriented judge, which is certainly a quality anyone would want present in a court of law. The problem is that she is not as adept at prioritizing among various urgent tasks or delegating duties to others.
Should Andersen remain in office for another term, the restructuring changes currently under discussion may go a long way toward resolving some of these issues, or she may continue to get bogged down in arguments with commissioners and micromanaging her staff.
Judge Beal promises a fresh start, a collaborative approach and solid relationships throughout the local justice system. Voters should give him a chance to help create a more unified, functional Justice Court.