Gallatin County judge has his day in the Senate

Ohman, Reinhart Levine, Abbott face uncertain future

By: - March 26, 2021 5:34 pm

Gallatin County Judge Peter Ohman speaks during his confirmation in the Montana Senate on March 26, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network).

Gallatin Deputy County Attorney Jordan Salo traveled to Helena to testify in favor of Judge Peter Ohman at the Senate Judiciary Confirmation hearing on Friday.

One of her reasons for testifying? She lost a recent case in his court.

It’s probably unconventional that the attorney who lost would come to support the judge.

“I lost the trial because of the evidence and the facts,” Salo said. “And that’s the way it should be.”

Salo said that when Ohman, who spent the bulk of his career as a public defender, took the bench, prosecutors were concerned — maybe he’d favor the defendants.

But a line of prosecutors appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to give examples of Ohman’s judicial demeanor and sharp legal mind.

Salo related another story about Ohman who had worked a case in which the defendant was accused of strangulation and had a history of domestic violence, and was already on felony probation. Ohman noted the defendant’s tattoos, which said, “Bitches ain’t shit.”

“In his sentence, he noted that that was how the defendant felt about women,” Salo said. “Judge Ohman jumped the plea agreement and sent him to the Department of Corrections. I’m slightly opinionated, and I wouldn’t testify if I didn’t believe we need him on the bench.”

Like two previous sitting judges who have yet to be confirmed by the Senate, Ohman’s hearing took place under a cloud of uncertainty. Ohman, who serves in the 18th Judicial Circuit in Gallatin County, is one of three judges there. More than a half-dozen people testifying pointed out that the growing county needs at least twice as many judges. However, Ohman, along with Michele Reinhart Levine of Cascade County and Christopher Abbott of Lewis and Clark County, are “hold-over” appointments from former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. It’s still unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will confirm the trio of judges with GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte, who recently signed Senate Bill 140, which gives the chief executive the power to appoint judges directly. Just a day after Gianforte signed the legislation into law, it was challenged at the Montana State Supreme Court.

The two-hour hearing for Ohman had a parade of prosecutors, defense and civil attorneys testify on Ohman. Many spoke of his judicial temperament and sharp legal mind. Four judges testified in favor of him, and Ohman received an endorsement from the Montana Bar Association and the Montana Trial Lawyers.

Attorneys from Gallatin County pleaded with the Senate to confirm Ohman because of the case backlog. Currently, Gallatin County is being considered for an additional judge, but a handful of attorneys told lawmakers the backlog is so extreme, they’re regularly advising clients with civil cases that it will take three years to resolve. A recent caseload study showed Gallatin County needed nearly seven judges to manage the load. It has three.

Even more sobering was testimony from prosecutors that said the courts are perilously close to violating Constitutional speedy trial requirements for criminal cases.

“If we go down to two judges, we will have to dismiss cases because of speedy trial requirements,” Salo said. “I can’t imagine telling a victim that we had to dismiss a case because of a speedy trial issue.”

Ohman told the committee the best lesson on the bench was learned by shadowing his predecessor, retired Judge Holly Brown.

“She always said, ‘Go to the code,’” Ohman said. “I know there are concerns in this committee about legislating from the bench, but I go to the code. The place for making policy is here, and I have no intention of legislating from the bench. I have been up here since 1999, and if I still wanted to do policy, I’d be with you now.”

Ohman’s background includes times as a leader in the statewide public defender’s office, supervising a multi-county area, and he also helped draft a series of bills that reformed the state’s public defender office.

Both of Ohman’s colleagues in Gallatin County spoke in favor of him, noting the long wait times for things like divorce.

“We have a request to confirm him,” said Judge Rienne McElyea. “What I have seen is a hard-working, dedicated and reasonable judge. He has a wonderful legal mind, and I have used him as a resource. Gallatin County is lucky to have Peter Ohman as a jurist.”

Mark Murphy, who had the claim to have likely been opposing counsel in Ohman’s first case, testified because of the variety of experiences that Ohman has had including drafting legislation, working as a public defender, and doing some civil practice.

“We never agreed on anything,” Murphy said. “We were working up here, and Peter and I disagreed on about everything. But everything he did was well thought out and presented. I wish I could say the same about me. But I have relied on his position and opinion for years.”

Judge Andrew Breuner, who is the municipal judge in Belgrade, said he considered Ohman a colleague and mentor.

“I was on the same five-member board of a private school as Gov. (Greg) Gianforte,” Breuner said. “And the governor set high standards, and I am here to say that Judge Ohman meets those standards. He has judicial temperament, which you either have or not. And frankly, it’s virtually impossible to replace.”

Executive action on the judges’ nominations has not been set as of Friday afternoon.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.