Bench warranted 

At 64, Montana’s top trial lawyer becomes federal judge

Sam Haddon, newly appointed by President George W. Bush to the federal bench in Montana, sounds just like you’d want a federal judge to sound should you ever find yourself in federal court: no-nonsense and to the point, but also focused and interested, even a bit, well, courtly. Haddon, 64, received Senate confirmation of his presidential appointment only last month, which may explain why he still answers his phone, “Sam Haddon,“ and not “Judge Haddon.“ Has he gotten used to being called Judge Haddon yet? “No,” he says with a hint of bemusement.

Haddon’s appointment comes almost 32 years to the day after he began practicing law in Missoula.

Haddon grew up in Texas, and despite his decades in Montana, he still speaks with a slight Texas drawl. He received his undergraduate degree from Rice University in 1959 and spent the next few years working for the federal government, first as a border patrol agent, then later with the federal narcotics bureau, the precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In 1965 Haddon graduated from the University of Montana School of Law. He took his law degree to Billings where he clerked for a year for U.S. District Judge William Jameson. After practicing law for a Billings law firm, Haddon returned to Missoula in July 1969 where he became a partner in the Boone, Karlberg and Haddon law firm. More than three decades later, after paying his dues in state and federal court, Haddon ascended the federal bench—a position he coveted for years since clerking for Judge Jameson.

Asked whether a federal judgeship had been his goal, Haddon doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Oh my heavens, yes,” he says. “When I worked for Judge Jameson back in ’65 and ’66 I think the seed was planted that if I could ever be accorded a federal judgeship, that would be the finest thing.”

Customarily, the U.S. senator of the sitting president’s party makes the recommendation for filling vacant federal judgeships in the nominating senator‘s home state. That political honor would have gone to Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). But in Haddon’s case (and in the case of Richard Cebull, another Montana attorney who was confirmed by the Senate to a federal judgeship on the same day), both Burns and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made a joint recommendation to the president. “It was really as good as it can get to have both senators from your state to make the recommendation,” says Haddon.

In fact, it got better. Both Haddon and Cebull were unanimously approved by the Senate, in Haddon’s case by a vote of 95-0. (The five non-voting senators had excused absences and one of the non-voting senators sent Haddon a note saying he would have voted for him had he had the opportunity.) Though the national press often portrays presidential appointments to the federal bench as nasty political fights featuring liberal vs. conservative viewpoints, Haddon says his Senate confirmation was free of political posturing. “When I went before the Senate Judiciary Committee I was not asked questions of a political nature,” he says “The focus was on Sam Haddon’s qualifications to do the job.”

It’s not just the U.S. Senate that thinks well of Haddon. Several years ago he represented the Daly Ditches Irrigation District in Ravalli County’s state district court. The case of Duus vs. Daly Ditches pitted a whistle-blowing employee against one of the county’s irrigation co-ops charged with mishandling algae-killing chemicals. Though the case was an unusual one for Hamilton, it wasn’t the substance of the trial that drew local attorneys to the courtroom day after day. Rather, it was a chance to see the legendary Haddon, considered to be the best trial lawyer in Montana, at work. Haddon remembers the case, which he lost, but says he didn’t know that lawyers were streaming in and out of the courtroom just to see him. “I wasn’t aware of that. Thanks for passing it on.”

The district of Montana is made up of five divisions: Butte, Missoula, Helena/Great Falls and Billings. Haddon is in Great Falls.

Until Haddon and Cebull were appointed to the bench last month, the federal district of Montana was down to one full-time federal judge, Don Molloy in Missoula, and two semi-retired judges, Jack Shanstrom and Charles Lovell. Judge Paul Hatfield died last year. Shanstrom and Lovell opted for “senior status,” a situation peculiar to the federal court, similar to the emeritus status awarded to academics on the verge of retirement. It’s an important component because without it active judges would be hard-pressed to get all the work done. Molloy did an exemplary job in keeping the calendar current, and the system was still functioning as it should but the caseload was beginning to pile up.

While Haddon expresses his admiration for state district court judges, he clearly finds the federal court, with its wide variety of cases, more interesting. Federal court is where cases in which the United States is a party are heard. That includes both civil and criminal cases. “It’s a different system in that its function is exclusively by authority granted by the constitution, and there are many, many state laws that the federal court has no jurisdiction to consider.“

In Montana, where there are seven Indian reservations, federal case law gets even more interesting. Tribal courts are limited to hearing misdemeanor cases; felony crimes committed on reservations are heard in federal court but only if at least one of the parties is an enrolled tribal member. The exception is the Flathead Reservation, where, by longstanding agreement, cases are heard in state district court.

At age 64, while most other people are looking forward to the light at the end of the work tunnel, Haddon is anxious to get to it. Retirement? “Oh no,” he says. “I’m just getting started. I do plan to work just as long as my health permits me to do so. I have no problems with my health and look forward to being here for a long time.”

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