For the first time in a long time, the 2013 Missoula election presents a deep slate of challengers and the possibility of significant change in local leadership. Four city council incumbents decided not to run for reelection, meaning at least a third of the governing body will be new. And of the six council seats on the ballot, four are contested. Two-term Mayor John Engen faces competition for the first time since 2005 with three others vying for his office. Perhaps the most intriguing race involves the battle for Municipal Court judge. The court sees roughly 40,000 misdemeanor cases annually and mainly adjudicates everyday crimes like speeding tickets, so many residents are likely to make a mandatory appearance before the city judge. This is the first time in two decades the robe has been truly up for grabs, and the first time ever the Independent has made a local judicial endorsement.
The Indy interviewed the candidates over the last three weeks. The conversations ranged from frustratingly ill informed to inspiring, which we suppose should be expected with so many first-time candidates. Overall, we came away mostly encouraged by the level of civic engagement and discourse, and with a clear understanding of the best choice in each race.
Municipal Court Judge
Kathleen Jenks (incumbent),
The Missoula Municipal Court handles roughly 180 cases a day. Defendants in the misdemeanor court are typically law-abiding locals who get caught speeding or busted for driving under the influence of alcohol. Due to the sheer volume of cases adjudicated and the fact that the fines generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the Missoula General Fund, we view this race among the year’s most important—and most interesting—with three candidates bringing distinctly different views to the campaign.
In 2011, the Missoula City Council appointed Kathleen Jenks to replace Municipal Court Judge Donald Louden, who served for nearly two decades. Jenks has made radical changes during her 23 months on the bench. She’s implemented online fine payment and overhauled record keeping. Defendants now get computerized printouts of their sentence requirements. In the past, the information was sloppily handwritten in the margins of the actual tickets.
Jenks has also launched a misdemeanor probation program that better ensures more stringent court oversight of alcohol and anger management counseling. A study conducted by the Office of Planning and Grants before Jenks was appointed to the bench found that four out of five offenders sentenced for partner family violence were not completing their court-ordered counseling. According to Jenks, between July 2012 and January 2013, the completion rate for anger management classes increased to 70 percent.
During Jenks’ short tenure, she’s earned a reputation for being tough. She’s also proven her management skills by increasing the court’s efficiency, which is evidenced by shorter lines and a significant jump in fine collections. Jenks says she hopes to be reelected and continue to build upon the considerable progress she has already made behind the bench.
Mark McClaverty says that, if elected, his judicial style would be more relaxed and personable. He speaks highly of Judge Louden, who was popular throughout his tenure and earned a reputation as something of a softy, inspiring the memorable nickname, “Let ’em loose Louden.” McClaverty calls Louden a mentor and a friend and, when asked if his courtroom would more closely resemble Louden’s or Jenks’, he quickly sides with Louden.
McLaverty says his primary goal as judge would be to keep offenders from getting in trouble again. He speaks at length about his capacity to empathize with defendants and his ability to make those appearing in court feel more comfortable.
“I enjoy working with people,” McLaverty says. “And I enjoy hearing their stories.”
McLaverty presents himself as a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t offer much substance when it comes to improving the court. Aside from a pledge to improve collaboration with the Missoula Veterans Court, which exerts more stringent oversight of addicted and mentally ill offenders, and a generic offer to better educate students about the dangers of drunken driving, we heard few details, new ideas or even reasons why a change in leadership is necessary.
Perhaps more troubling is McLaverty’s overly relaxed approach to doling out justice, one that is more focused on making friends than interpreting statute. His decision to omit his 2003 drunken driving conviction on a judicial candidate application reinforces our perception of McLaverty as a casual interpreter of the rules.
State law requires defendants convicted of misdemeanor DUI to spend one day in jail. McLaverty says that because he doesn’t recall serving time, and the 2011 application question specifically inquired about convictions carrying a jail sentence, he omitted the charge from the application.
McLaverty is splitting hairs. As an attorney, he knows the statute. If not, he ought to. His two opponents believe the question was clearly worded and McLaverty erred in not divulging the conviction, and we agree.
McLaverty is certainly personable. He’s the kind of guy we’d want to sit down with and shoot the bull over a root beer or two. But that’s not enough to earn our endorsement.
The third candidate, Leta Womack, is a veteran trial lawyer who currently serves as a public defender in Polson. She’s articulate, engaging and accumulated quite the resume, including a perfect score on the Martindale-Hubble rating system, a peer-dictated measure of professional standards such as legal ability and ethical practices.
Womack wants to distinguish herself from the incumbent by emphasizing alternatives to jail sentences. She’d like to place first- and second-time offenders into community service, rather than fining them or locking them up. She also believes that there’s room to grow the Municipal Court’s collaborations with Co-occurring Treatment Court and Veterans Court.
“Throwing them in jail is not the right solution,” Womack says. “The harshest punishments that you can assess are not necessarily a deterrent to crime.”
We like Womack’s drive to treat rather than incarcerate, but again we heard little else in the form of substantive changes. Perhaps the reason Womack and McLaverty struggled to articulate a need for improvement is because Jenks has made such significant strides in relatively short order. The incumbent’s track record leaves us eager to see what she can accomplish during another four years.
Endorsement: Kathleen Jenks