Opening arguments 

Missoula county attorney race starts early with two candidates

The race to become Missoula's next county attorney kicked off Nov. 9 with an eye-catching Facebook post from Kirsten Pabst. When announcing her candidacy to replace Fred Van Valkenburg, Pabst, who worked in the prosecutor's office for 16 years before leaving in 2012 to enter private practice, accused her former employer of losing sight of its "primary functions of community safety and service to our citizens."

Pabst isn't a stranger to controversy. Her defense earlier this year of University of Montana football player Jordan Johnson against rape charges pitted her against her former colleagues at the county attorney's office. As Pabst wrote in her Pabst Law Blawg in March, switching sides came with a price. "I have been demonized by former colleagues," she wrote in a post that's now been removed, "ostracized by the women's rights groups I joined decades ago, expelled from collaborative teams designed to make the process more responsive and efficient, and unfriended by those who claim to care about justice."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Jason Marks
  • Jason Marks
click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Julia Johnson
  • Kirsten Pabst

Pabst won that case. Johnson was exonerated. Pabst says her experience over the years is part of the reason supporters urged her to jump into what's shaping up as a hotly contested Missoula county attorney's race.

"I was approached by some groups in the community that were concerned about what was going on and thought that they needed someone, a strong figure with the experience and the skills to take this office in a better direction," she says.

Pabst isn't the only experienced candidate to enter the county attorney race. The day after she created her Facebook page, Missoula County Assistant Chief Criminal Deputy Jason Marks unveiled his own. The 34-year-old touts his quick ascent in the prosecutorial ranks and, in a press release issued last week, stands behind his "demonstrated commitment to the (prosecutor's) office." Marks admits that the latter statement is a not-so-subtle dig at Pabst, who prior to leaving the prosecutor's office was widely regarded as Van Valkenburg's presumed heir apparent.

"I could go into private practice if I wanted to," Marks tells the Independent. "But I don't think that is the best way to accomplish what I would like to accomplish."

The Missoula County Attorney's Office oversees all felony prosecutions in the county and misdemeanors charged outside of the city limits, and provides legal advice to the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. Whomever voters elect will replace Van Valkenburg, who's led the office for 15 years.

During the past two years, Van Valkenburg has faced questions about how his office handled a series of sexual assault allegations. In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its intention to investigate how the county attorney's office, the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana dealt with sexual violence reports during a four-year period. While MPD and the university cooperated with the investigations and accepted federal mandates going forward, Van Valkenburg refused. He argues that the inquiry constitutes a dangerous federal overreach and that he has yet to see any evidence that his office has done anything wrong.

It remains to be seen whether the DOJ will attempt to force the county attorney's office to cooperate by filing a lawsuit. Such an effort might not be necessary, depending on who succeeds Van Valkenburg.

Both Marks and Pabst relay strikingly similar opinions about how to work with the DOJ. Both say the office needs a more defined rule structure and a comprehensive policy manual that defines specifics, such as the appropriate timeframe for prosecutors to file charges and ways to best communicate with law enforcement, which was identified as a deficiency in the DOJ investigation.

"To date, there is nothing in writing," Pabst says. "I think that that would clear up a lot of the ongoing confusion."

Similarly, both candidates agree the office can be more transparent and better communicate the reasons it declines to prosecute cases. Pabst and Marks stop short, however, of inviting the federal government in to exert unreasonable demands.

Marks specifically notes that there's merit to Van Valkenburg's concerns. To date, the DOJ has never investigated any county attorney's office for alleged civil rights violations. Opening the door now could set a dangerous precedent. "There are some legitimate questions there about the authority," Marks says.

It's early—the filing deadline to run for office isn't for another four monthsbut the two early candidates are already lining up endorsements. Van Valkenburg, Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen and civil prosecutor Marnie McClain endorse Marks' candidacy. Retired MPD Chief Pete Lawrenson, former University of Montana Law School Associate Dean Greg Munro and retired Missoula County Sheriff's Office Captain Greg Hintz back Pabst's bid.

Additional candidates have until March 10, 2014, to file for the race.

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