The Cascade County Courthouse in Great Falls. Credit: Aualliso via Flickr

GREAT FALLS — The 8th Judicial District Advisory Council appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte met Wednesday to vet the five candidates jockeying for the open judgeship in Cascade County, identifying two as front-runners they will recommend to the governor. 

The committee, made up of Great Falls community members and officials, unanimously agreed to promote the district’s current Standing Master, David Grubich, as their top choice to fill the temporary vacancy. Former 8th District Court Judge Michele Reinhart Levine was identified as a close second for the recommendation, despite having lost the seat after the Republican-held state Senate declined to confirm her nomination this spring. 

Other applicants for the temporary position include former federal law clerk and U.S. Department of Justice attorney Rebekah French, family law attorney Tracy Labin Rhodes and Deputy Cascade County Attorney Matthew Robertson.

Advisory council members, including local lawyers, educators, youth advocates and law enforcement officials, deliberated for just over an hour before settling on Grubich and Levine as their top choices. In explaining their reasoning, several council members described both applicants as hard-working, humble people with a range of legal experiences that could benefit the community of Great Falls. 

The group said it intends to issue a letter to the governor summarizing its choices in the coming days. The public comment period for all applicants closed Wednesday, June 30, at 5 p.m. Gianforte must select his nominee before July 30. The chosen applicant will assume the judgeship immediately, but will need to win election in 2022 to remain in the seat. 

Members of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s 8th Judicial District Advisory Council meet on Wednesday, June 30, 2021 to discuss candidates for a vacant judgeship in Cascade County. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

Wednesday’s meeting was part of Gianforte’s newly created process for filling judicial vacancies between elections, a power granted to the governor by Senate Bill 140. Before Gianforte signed that bill into law in March, four lay people appointed by the governor and three representatives of the judicial branch sat on the Judicial Nomination Committee, which reviewed applicants and presented a short-list of top contenders to the governor. The eventual nominee is subject to confirmation by the state Senate, a condition that remains in place.  

The Republican-led Legislature, encouraged by the Gianforte administration, voted this year to eliminate that commission and bestow direct-appointment power to fill temporary court vacancies to the sitting governor. 

The law was immediately challenged in court, with plaintiffs arguing that it violated the intent of the framers of the state’s 1972 Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court voted 6-1 in June to uphold the new law, finding that it is within the Legislature’s power to decide how court vacancies are filled and that SB 140 maintains a public vetting process through the solicitation of public comment. 

Gianforte later decided to appoint an advisory council to help recruit and review applicants for the district’s seat, a step that is not required by the new law. In announcing the new group, Gianforte said it would help him find top-notch contenders.

“Comprised of accomplished attorneys and long-time community leaders, the Eighth Judicial District Advisory Council will assist me in identifying exceptional candidates to serve as the district court judge in the Eighth Judicial District,” Gianforte’s written statement said. “I have charged the advisory council with casting a broad net to identify well-qualified candidates who are committed to the fair, consistent, and objective application of the law and who will interpret laws, not make them from the bench.”  

Five candidates submitted applications, all of whom tout decades of legal experience in private practice and under state and federal offices and judges. 

“You come into family law cases where individuals don’t have attorneys, there’s a lot of emotion. Individuals are fighting over significant and insignificant things in their life. For someone like Judge Grubich to be overseeing those types of cases, the way in which he was able to always be so patient and so even-tempered, I honestly have to say he’s just a better judge than I was in that respect.”

former District Court Judge Greg Pinski.

As of Wednesday, Grubich and Levine easily led the group in the number of testimonials supporting their candidacy. Both applicants received dozens of letters of support from former colleagues and community members, totalling approximately 100 pages each. The remaining candidates, French, Rhodes and Robertson, each collected between five and 10 letters of support. At least three letters of recommendations are required for an applicant to continue in the selection process.

Many of the letters submitted on behalf of Levine appealed to Gianforte to “right a wrong” by restoring the former Cascade County judge to the seat. After being originally recommended by the Judicial Nomination Commission, Levine was selected by former Gov. Steve Bullock in November to fill the district court’s vacancy. After fielding questions from the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee about her ability to be fair and impartial, the former Democratic lawmaker became the first-ever Montana judicial appointee not to be confirmed by the Senate.  

In late June, Republican Senate leadership penned a letter to Gianforte recommending he avoid selecting Levine for the position, saying it would be “inappropriate” to appoint her when the Legislature will not reconvene until 2023, after her interim tenure ends.

Advisory council members referenced the political process in their discussion Wednesday, with some acknowledging that the will of elected legislators should be taken into consideration. The committee did not explicitly cite Levine’s failed nomination as a reason for ranking her second. Rather, they highlighted Grubich’s experience as a de facto judge in the district court, even-keeled temperament and wide-ranging community support as factors that gave him an advantage in a close contest.

“You come into family law cases where individuals don’t have attorneys, there’s a lot of emotion. Individuals are fighting over significant and insignificant things in their life,” said former District Court Judge Greg Pinski. “For someone like Judge Grubich to be overseeing those types of cases, the way in which he was able to always be so patient and so even-tempered, I honestly have to say he’s just a better judge than I was in that respect.”

After deciding on their preferred candidates, committee members also discussed their participation in the new vetting process. Many said they appreciated the involvement of so many community members, though they suggested the diversity of the group could be expanded by including lawyers representing different fields of work. 

Members of the council also said they appreciated the chance to hear applicants answer questions during a recent forum with the Cascade County Bar Association, and recommended that similar public events be repeated when filling other court vacancies. 

Gianforte’s office has indicated he will replicate similar advisory councils when more judicial seats become available in other districts. No other vacancies have currently been announced.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.