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  Comments (1) Total Friday Apr. 18, 2014
Legacies on the Bench
District Court judges Katherine Curtis and Stewart Stadler to retire at year’s end
District Court Judges Stewart Stadler, left, and Katherine Curtis are seen at the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
At the end of the year, about 30 years of judicial knowledge and experience will walk out of Flathead County District Court with judges Katherine Curtis and Stewart Stadler and into retirement.

Their seats – Curtis in Department 2, and Stadler in Department 3 – are up for grabs in an open election, which will be decided in November. But since they are judges, they did not have the liberty to let up off the gas once they announced their respective retirements. In fact, they’re only going to get busier before January.

Stadler and Curtis sat down for an interview with the Beacon last week, and Stadler, who would have preferred to leave without any fanfare, poked fun at himself all the while.

Anyone who has watched Stadler work as a judge would recognize the dry sense of humor; it crops up occasionally and appropriately in the courtroom, where he is otherwise quiet and to the point.

“He has the perfect judicial temperament and disposition,” Kalispell Municipal Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht, who is one of the candidates running for Stadler’s seat, said. “He doesn’t show tremendous emotion on the bench.”

Kalispell attorney Vanessa Ceravolo is also running for Stadler’s seat.

Before joining district court in 2000, Stadler was a justice of the peace for Flathead County. He took that bench in 1985 after a career as an attorney. Stadler also owned the Rainbow Bar in Evergreen for 10 years, bartending five nights a week.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan has been working with Stadler for 26 years, and describes him as “very even-keeled, fair to both sides; sometimes lets common sense play a bigger role in his decisions than perhaps what the strict letter of the law may require.”

Curtis is perhaps more formal than Stadler, Corrigan said, and she’s an outstanding jurist.

“I’m comfortable going before her because I know her decisions are going to be well reasoned,” Corrigan said.

“In some jurisdictions, there’s quite a gap between juries and judges. There’s a lot of good communication between the defense bar, my office and these two judges,” he said. “They’re going to be missed; it’s going to really be quite the change.”

Before beginning her district court career in 1995, Curtis served as the city attorney for Columbia Falls, and also had a private practice. Preceding her Montana career, Curtis worked for the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., focusing on anti-trust cases.

Bob Allison, an attorney in Kalispell who is running for Curtis’ seat against Justice of the Peace Daniel Wilson, said Curtis has been an excellent judge, “demanding, reasonable, fair and impartial.”

While Stadler tends to look more at the big picture of cases, Allison said, Curtis is more detail-oriented on the bench. They may have different styles in the courtroom, Stadler and Curtis agreed, but the end results tend to be the same.

Consistency among the four district court judges is a must if the court wants to maintain some of its efficiency-enhancing innovations, such as having one day a week designated for criminal case issues. The judges rotate who works that day each week, allowing for flexibility.

“I think we’re both pretty proud of the part we’ve played and tried to help things run as efficiently as possible,” Curtis said.

Losing two of the four judges currently seated in district court is a major transition in itself, but Curtis’ and Stadler’s exit is compounded by the retirement of tireless court administrator Bonnie Olson, who has been in the position for 12 years, and has worked with the Flathead court system since 1978.

Adding Olson’s experience to the total, over 50 years of district court experience hits the road in December. That’s quite a change for the court to handle come the New Year, Curtis and Stadler remarked, and will add a new challenge to the already-taxing work.

District Court Judges Katherine Curtis, left, and Stewart Stadler reminisce about their time in the legal system while sitting in Court Room Two at the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“I think the biggest challenge is Bonnie’s leaving,” Curtis said. “Obviously if we were all staying and she was leaving we’d figure out how to get around it, but for there to be a 50 percent turnover in the judges and you have to find someone with her qualifications and experience is just going to be really, really tough.”

Another challenge for the new judges will be taking a seat with an already-full caseload instead of starting from the ground up like they would if it were a newly created judgeship.

“I’m not trying to demean any of the candidates, but they’re going to have culture shock when they get here,” Stadler said. “I don’t think any of them realize that you sign 20 files a day, that it’s just constant.”

The ceaseless nature of the work takes its toll. Both judges said they feel worn out from the amount of work and the stress it causes, and are ready to step down. The only motivation to stay on is the staff they work with, Curtis said, “but that only gets you so far.”

“It’s a stressful job and there’s a lot to it, both the quantity and the type of thing that you deal with all the time,” she said. “And you just get to the point where you think, ‘Well, maybe someone with more enthusiasm should pick up the reins.’”

Despite their lengthy careers, both judges said their most memorable cases occurred last year: Curtis sat on the bench for the Justine Winter double homicide trial and Stadler worked the Tyler Miller double homicide case.

Winter’s case stood out because of its massive size and scope, Curtis said. Stadler said Miller’s case was different for him because it was a death penalty case requiring a lot of legal gymnastics for both the prosecution and the defense.

But while these cases offer a break from their normal routine, they also exponentially increase the jurists’ workload, which averages about 4,500 cases total for all four judges annually.

“The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is, that’s just one case in our caseload,” Curtis said. “It’s not like when he gets the death penalty Miller case or I get the Justine Winter case that somebody else picks up the slack for me. You’re still expected to do all the rest of your work but all of a sudden you have this one statistical case that consumes all of your time.”

Stadler and Curtis said they both regretted that civil cases tend to fall to the back of the pack when criminal cases take precedent, but that’s the reality of how a judge has to work.

“Both of us have attempted to do justice and to follow the law and I think we’ve been probably fairly successful with that,” Stadler said. “There’s people that will disagree with that; I mean, every time you rule on a case somebody’s probably not going to be real happy. In fact, sometimes it’s everyone who’s not happy.”

In her time on the bench, Curtis said the most emotionally trying cases are typically the juvenile criminal cases, because the court cannot give these children all the help they need to have a chance at a decent life.

She remembered one case in which she had a 6-year-old boy who had set a fire in a Lakeside marina appear before her in court.

“He’s done something really bad, but you can’t blame him; I mean, it’s not his problem, it’s his parents, it’s his community,” Curtis said. “It’s not a legal problem; it’s a societal thing.”

Stadler agreed, noting that he started the county’s Accountability Court to help give kids a better chance of staying with their parents. This court is volunteer run and not mandatory for those who appear in it, and works as a check-in system once every three weeks to help keep people on track.

“I think you’ll find that if you can get parents to do the right thing and parent their own children, we’re all better off,” Stadler said.

Curtis has also worked to help children in the Flathead, by prioritizing cases that deal with kids and helping bring Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to the valley in the late 1990s.

Both Curtis and Stadler are committed to clearing any backlog in cases they may have before the new judges take over in January, which means there will be plenty of long days and working weekends in the next few months.

But it will all be worth it, they said, once retirement sets in and they can do all the fun things they didn’t have time for before, such as hiking, gardening and taking their time on errands.

Olson, the retiring court administrator, said Curtis and Stadler are some of the hardest-working judges across the state, and she has enjoyed working with them for so many years.

“They work very hard, they’re very professional; they’re very respectful of our staff and the people that appear before them regardless of what brings them before them,” Olson said. “And I think that’s pretty important.”
On 10-06-12, TruthBeTold commented....
These two are a matched common pair. They share the same common values. They share the same common prejudices and biases. They are, therefore, nothing if not common.
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