Six Montana lawyers have been recommended as possible nominees for appointment to the federal bench in Montana, and are being interviewed by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, the IR State Bureau has learned.
Baucus, as Montana’s senior U.S. senator, is expected to recommend several names to the White House later this year for possible nomination by President Barack Obama to fill federal judgeships in Billings and Great Falls.
A nine-member commission formed by Baucus in December has been reviewing possible candidates and recently recommended six attorneys for consideration:
• For the Billings post, the panel recommended state district judges Susan Watters and Ingrid Gustafson, both of Billings, and Helena attorney Mike Lamb.
• For the Great Falls judgeship, the panel chose Great Falls attorney Elizabeth Best, state District Judge Dirk Sandefur of Great Falls, and Ryan Rusche, a lawyer with offices in Columbia Falls and Wolf Point.
Whoever eventually is chosen for the job — and confirmed by the U.S. Senate — will replace retiring U.S. District Court judges Sam Haddon in Great Falls and Richard Cebull in Billings. Haddon and Cebull will be on senior status with a reduced caseload.
The appointees would be the second and third federal judges in Montana to be appointed by Obama, who appointed U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in late 2011.
Baucus said Monday that he’s “continuing to work with our diverse and respected panel of legal experts to find the most qualified, ethical and hard-working individuals possible to serve Montanans on the federal bench.”
The panel formed by Baucus includes several Montana attorneys and state Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker.
While Baucus may recommend nominees from the list of six finalists named by his own panel, he could choose someone completely different.
His office also said the panel may make additional recommendations and will be working with Baucus on evaluating the candidates before Baucus forwards names to the White House.
Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana law professor and legal expert on federal courts, said Monday he’s “a little surprised” that the short list doesn’t include any of the current federal magistrates in Montana, but that the finalists are “very diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, practice experience and ideology.”
Tobias, now on the faculty at the University of Richmond, also noted that the potential nominees are relatively young, when compared to the current federal judges in Montana and some of the other applicants. The oldest of the six finalists are in their mid-50s. Federal judges are appointed for life.
Lamb, Watters, Best and Gustafson confirmed Monday that they were recommended by the panel and are interviewing with Baucus. Sandefur and Rusche could not be reached for comment.
Gustafson, 51, said she would look forward to “the challenge of going on to the federal bench,” and Watters, 54, said she considered the chance a “great opportunity” and an honor.
Lamb, a litigation specialist in the law firm of Lamb and Carey, said it’s “a great honor just to be considered.” Lamb grew up in Red Lodge and Columbus and has been in private practice since 1980.
Best, 55, said she’s “gratified that my peers on the committee recommended me to Senators Baucus and Tester,” and that she considers the justice system to be “the foundation for our democracy.”
Best grew up in Great Falls and has been in private practice for 27 years. She was a candidate for justice of the Montana Supreme Court last year.