HELENA (AP) — A Montana Supreme Court justice from Butte and a Billings district judge are being recommended to fill two open federal judgeships, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ office said Monday.
The Montana Democrat will recommend that District Judge Susan Watters take U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull’s Billings seat and that Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris replace U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon of Great Falls.
“Judge Watters and Justice Morris are exceptionally qualified and highly respected individuals who I have no doubt will serve the people of Montana well, while upholding the ideals of justice and fairness,” Baucus said in a statement.
A nine-member committee led by chairman Max Davis of Great Falls recommended Watters and Morris from more than 30 people who submitted resumes. They must be formally nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate before they can take the lifetime appointments.
Morris, a graduate of Butte Central High School, where he was an all-star athlete, has been a Supreme Court justice since 2005. He was re-elected in 2012 to another eight-year term that goes until 2020.
Before that, Morris was solicitor for the Montana Department of Justice, a legal officer for the United Nations Compensation Commission, a partner in a Bozeman law firm and a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
He has a bachelor’s, master’s and law degree from Stanford University, where he also played football.
James Goetz was Morris’ law partner and has argued cases before him after Morris joined the state Supreme Court. As a lawyer, Morris was a good writer and a good analytical thinker, Goetz said.
As a judge, Morris has been even-handed and insightful, he said.
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“He’s courteous and treats litigants before him professionally. Some judges don’t always do that,” Goetz said.
Watters has been a judge in Montana’s 13th Judicial District since 1998, and was re-elected in 2012 to another six-year term. Before that, she was in private practice and a deputy county attorney for Yellowstone County.
Watters received her law degree from the University of Montana in 1988.
Missoula attorney Randy Cox said he has worked with Watters in her courtroom and at the University of Montana Law School’s Trial Advocacy School, where young lawyers learn the basics of trial practice.
She is compassionate, has a nice touch with people and the trial experience that will translate well from state to federal court, Cox said.
“It’s really valuable to take somebody to the federal bench who has trial experience either as a practicing lawyer in the trenches or a trial judge who has presided over hundreds of trials and everything that goes with it,” Cox said.
The positions are open because Haddon took senior status on Dec. 31 and Cebull plans to take senior status starting next Monday.
A judge can take senior status when he or she is 65 or older and has at least 15 years on the bench. A judge with senior status takes a reduced caseload but still draws a salary and can keep a staff of four.
Montana already has three other senior federal judges: Donald Molloy in Helena, Jack Shanstrom in Billings and Charles Lovell in Helena.
Montana’s only other active judge is Obama appointee Dana Christensen.
If Watters and Morris are confirmed to the federal bench, Gov. Steve Bullock will appoint replacements to fill out their elected terms based on recommendations by the Judicial Nominations Commission.
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