BILLINGS — U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, author of some of the most controversial rulings in recent Montana history, announced Wednesday that he will be taking senior status in August 2011.

“Senior status” means retirement from active service. Senior judges continue to hear cases, usually with a reduced case load. The announcement, however, said Molloy intends to maintain a “substantial” case load.

No reason was given for the decision by the 64-year-old Missoula federal judge, and he was unavailable for comment.

His decision will create a vacancy in the District of Montana, which has an allotment of three active-duty judges. The president usually nominates a candidate to the U.S. Senate after conferring with senators from the state where the judge will serve.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced Wednesday that he had named a committee of five Montana attorneys to search for a replacement for Molloy whom he can recomment to President Barack Obama. They are James Goetz, of Bozeman; Candace Fetscher, Missoula; Karla Gray, a former chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, Helena; Milton Datsopoulos, Missoula; and Martha Sheehy, Billings.

Molloy, who practiced law in Billings for many years before his appointment to the federal bench, often seems at odds with Montana’s decidedly conservative bent. He blocked removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list and dismissed a lawsuit filed by Montana and other states that wanted out from under federal gun laws.

He declared a U.S. Forest Service plan for dropping retardant on fires illegal and said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arbitrarily excluded parts of Montana and several other Western states from critical habitat for the Canada lynx.

And those decisions were just those made this year.

During his 14-year career on the federal bench, he had also blocked logging sales, curtailed use of motorized vehicles in the Gallatin National Forest and otherwise raised the hackles of critics who refer to him as an activist judge.

But Molloy also has earned esteem in legal circles.

“He’s known and highly respected by the judicial community throughout the country,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull of Billings. “He’s served on numerous conferences and committees throughout the circuit. He’s really distinguished himself.”

Last year, Molloy presided over the criminal trial of W.R. Grace Co. and three of its executives who were acquitted of knowingly allowing human exposure to asbestos at the company’s mine near Libby.

Molloy was appointed to the federal bench by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 in consultation with Sen. Max Baucus. At the time, Molloy had a private civil practice in Billings.

A Butte native, Molloy grew up in Malta, where his father practiced medicine. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Law in 1976 and then clerked for U.S. District Judge James Battin in Billings.

After his appointment to the bench, Molloy presided in Missoula, and was for a time chief judge of the District of Montana.

“It’s his life,” Cebull said, predicting that Molloy on senior status will have as big a case load as ever. “Don always wanted to be a federal judge.”

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Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings called Molloy a “very good district judge and chief judge. He is a very dedicated hard worker.”

Molloy presided over the building of new courthouses in Great Falls and Missoula and computerized the court system in the district.

“I know he’ll take a full case load,” Shanstrom said. “It will just give Montana an extra judge.”

Cebull said it will be almost like getting a judge for free. Whether a judge retires altogether or takes senior status, the pay’s the same, he said.

Shanstrom, who has been on senior status since 2001, still handles about a third of the federal criminal case load in Billings and travels to sit as a visiting district judge in Washington, D.C.

Senior status “is a much more relaxed position,” he said. “You can travel anywhere in the United States and sit.”

“I imagine he will sit on the 9th Circuit by invitation,” Shanstrom said.

Senior judges are sometimes asked to sit in cases heard by appeals courts, he said.

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