Lewis and Clark County commissioners voted Tuesday to establish a position for a second justice of the peace judge to preside over the county Justice Court.
A single justice of the peace, Michael G. Swingley, serves the county currently. With Swingley’s steep caseload in mind, commissioners approved Tuesday's resolution unanimously with chairman Andy Hunthausen absent. Candidates for the new position will run on Lewis and Clark County ballots in 2020.
Small claims and civil cases, citations from various state and county agencies and, initially, most county felony cases are filed in the Justice Court.
County administrative officer Roger Baltz said Tuesday that 1,298 civil cases and 102 small claims cases were filed in 2017. The agencies for which Justice Court processes citations, including the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the county animal control officer, issued 3,163 citations the same year.
Prior to the vote, commissioner Susan Good Geise said she believed it is “high time” that the new position be created.
“Judge Swingley has been a real champion,” Geise said, “but he is a mortal.”
Commission vice chair Jim McCormick said it is “extremely important” that commissioners maintain an efficient county criminal justice system and that the new position is a crucial step in doing so.
“I would characterize it as a log jam,” McCormick said of the Justice Court's caseload. “That’s really what it is. … Criminal justice, the process can’t move any faster than Justice Court can get people in to hear their cases and proceed.”
McCormick said increases in both population and crime in the county have necessitated a need for improvements to law enforcement infrastructure, pointing to the planned renovation of the entire Law Enforcement Center into jail space and the future Law and Justice Center on Fuller Avenue.
McCormick said the latter could accommodate court space, before describing Swingley’s present courtroom at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse as “really no much more than a broom closet.”
Baltz told the Independent Record earlier this month that a proposed 25,000-square-foot addition to the Law and Justice Center property could allow for future relocation of Helena Municipal Court.
In an email Tuesday, Swingley said he is pleased with the resolution and welcomes an opportunity to share the workload.
“This county is the only major population in Montana with only one justice of the peace,” Swingley wrote. “Although I feel very fortunate to serve in this position, the number of criminal, civil and small claims cases increases every year. The biggest issue we face is (our) drug problem in L&C County, which has a compound effect of increased criminal cases, as well as civil disputes. The number of criminal trials has increased to the point that it is difficult to meet speedy trial deadlines with scheduling. The addition of a part-time justice of the peace should alleviate some of the pressure and give the judges more time to focus on cases.”
Baltz said Tuesday the new justice would be a full-time employee.
Swingley receives a salary of $75,106 from Lewis and Clark County.