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Montana district court Judge Deborah Christopher tenders resignation

by By KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| March 26, 2024 7:00 AM

A district court judge who has been under scrutiny for the way she handled a child custody case and for repeatedly missing work is resigning from the job, according to a letter to the chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.

In the letter, Judge Deborah Kim Christopher said it had been a privilege to serve Lake and Sanders counties for nearly 24 years, and she will resign effective April 5, 2024.

Christopher said as a judge, she learned much about people’s lives and professions.

“I was compassionate as a judge even with a reputation as a tough judge,” Christopher said in the March 15 letter.

The Lake County Leader first reported Christopher’s resignation. Christopher is a former prosecutor who grew up in Polson and spent time in the U.S. Army.

Thursday, the Montana Secretary of State’s Office still listed Christopher as a judge candidate for the November 2024 election. The other candidate listed is defense and civil attorney Britt Cotter of Polson.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has the authority to fill judicial vacancies after receiving notice from the chief justice and soliciting applications. A spokesperson from the Governor’s Office said it will initiate the process for filling the vacancy as outlined in law.

“There will be an application window in which interested parties may apply to fill the remainder of the term,” said Sean Southard of the Governor’s Office in an email. “The term will end on the first Monday of January 2025. ”

In January, the Montana Supreme Court removed Christopher from a case where she unexpectedly took away child custody from the caretaking parent and gave it to the father without either parent requesting it or alleging wrongdoing.

Christopher had also referred to the mother in the case as “you bitch” when discussing the case with staff after the mother had left the courtroom, according to a recording of the proceeding.

The Judicial Standards Commission brought a formal complaint against Christopher this year for repeatedly missing work without adequate notice or plans, jeopardizing defendants’ rights to speedy trials and due process.

In a separate case, the state health department recently asked the judge to be disqualified, alleging bias. Additionally, a lawyer who represented the mother in the custody matter earlier confirmed he and his colleague filed a judicial misconduct complaint against the judge.

“I am happy that Judge Christopher has elected to resign rather than to continue on the bench,” said Lance Jasper on Thursday.

Jasper and Spencer MacDonald had filed a complaint and publicly raised concerns about Christopher’s judgement.

“I am saddened that it’s now coming to light there are many individuals like Shanna (ManyWounds, mother in the custody case) that have suffered tremendous injustice that will now never be addressed due to the fact that her resignation results in all judicial complaints being dismissed without a determination being made,” Jasper said.

Jasper said the resignation means the judge doesn’t have to confront wrongdoings and the public doesn’t get the full picture.

“It’s a further insult to these people they (the complaints) can’t even be disclosed to the public,” Jasper said.

Christopher did not return a voicemail left for comment earlier this week.

However, she reflected on her career in the letter to Chief Justice Mike McGrath.

She said she was the first female judge in the Twentieth Judicial District, a ranking female officer at Airborne School at Fort Benning Georgia, and first female Lake County Attorney.

“I didn’t get it right all the time and I was always thankful to know if I got it wrong, there were seven Supreme Court Justices who would fix it,” Christopher said. “Given the incredible power held by a district judge with people’s lives, children, money, property, and futures, the position has always weighed heavily on me.”

However, she also said a sergeant major once told her she was “the most idealist lawyer” he knew and made her promise she wouldn’t lose her ideals “no matter what the price.

“I paid the price, but I kept the promise,” the judge wrote. “Having ‘Judge’ as a first name has been an honor and a privilege.”