A Montana State Senate vote on Friday means Michele Levine will not continue as a Cascade County District Judge. It’s the first time in 50 years the Senate has declined to confirm an interim judge.
At Levine’s final hearing in Great Falls, a Youth in Need of Care matter, she said she told the parties that a new judge would have to get up to speed on their case.
Until then, she said, those kids are “in limbo,” and they’re not the only ones.
“The Senate is playing with a lot of people’s lives,” said Levine. “That breaks my heart.”
Without a confirmation, Levine cannot continue working. Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said he’s unsure of the timeline for her removal.
Former governor Steve Bullock appointed Levine after Greg Pinski left the bench in December.
She was one of three Montana judges recommended by the Judicial Nomination Commission and appointed by Bullock. The commission has since been dissolved by Senate Bill 140, which gave Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte the ability to choose interim judges directly.
Gallatin County judge Peter Ohman’s confirmation process continues after a unanimous Senate Judiciary Committee vote Friday. A third judge, Chris Abbott of Lewis and Clark County, is still awaiting a determination from the committee.
During the Senate committee’s Friday hearings, Levine’s supporters cited her efficiency, hardworking attitude and community support as reasons to confirm her.
Opponents’ objections to Levine were overwhelmingly concerns about partisanship.
Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, said no one shows up to oppose judge confirmations because they’re afraid to speak up.
“Do judges hold grudges?” he asked. “To think that they don’t have likes or dislikes is naïve. Judge Levine has a very partisan past.”
Regier brought up Levine’s record of donations to Democratic campaigns. Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, called Levine a “political activist” and listed her past affiliations with “progressive organizations.”
“She was not centrist,” McGillvray said of Levine’s time as a Montana legislator. “She was on the hard left of the party, I would say…I think when one has that kind of record, it’s just not inherent bias, it’s a pressure to appease these types of groups.”
Bennett spoke about the judicial load in Cascade County and expressed concern about delays in justice.
Levine said she has a 1,300-case load with 85-100 pending criminal trials.
“Who’s going to handle those?” Levine said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Trials have been backed up by the COVID-19 pandemic, and one man accused of child sexual abuse has already seen his case dismissed after his mental health evaluation fell through the cracks.
Bennett has gone on record calling the potential removal of interim judges a power grab by Republicans.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said at Friday’s hearing that she believes judges take their oaths as seriously as legislators do and commit to following the law despite their personal beliefs.
“It’s really quite clear no matter how we talk about that,” said Sands, “that this is part of the effort of the Republican party and the Governor to have judges that are more suited to their political taste and to be able to choose those.”
Sands said that Republicans are trying to convince the public that judges’ positions are partisan ones. She said Republicans will replace ousted judges with ones who have political leanings more to their liking.
“We’re looking for independent-minded individuals who have a track record of being such,” McGillvray responded. “I just feel like this appointment was doomed to failure because it was so biased and partisan.”
The committee voted 7-4 to uphold the recommendation against Levine’s confirmation.
The Senate vote was 28-22.
Regier was not specific when Sands asked when they would have a hearing on Abbott, only replying with, “Not today.”
With Levine’s seat empty, SB 140 gives the 100-day process of choosing her replacement to Gianforte. The constitutional challenge to the bill, however, means the seat could remain open longer.
Levine said she isn’t just walking away.
“I am deeply committed to serving the people of my judicial district, and I will be asking the voters for their support in 2022,” she said.
Until then, Levine expressed concern for the state of the 8th Judicial District.
“You’re looking at months of doing damage to one of the busiest judicial districts in the state…and to the people of Cascade County,” she said.
Criminal justice reporter Traci Rosenbaum reports on law enforcement issues for the Tribune. Reach her at [email protected] or 406-791-1490.
Follow her on Twitter @GFTrib_TRosenba.
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