Five applicants vie for Eighth District judgeship

    BRIEF

    Judge Michele Reinhart Levine of Cascade County speaks at her confirmation hearing before the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee on March 24, 2021. (Montana Public Access Network)

    Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday began soliciting public comment on five applicants to fill the vacancy in the state’s Eighth Judicial District, an open seat created after the Senate voted not to confirm Judge Michele Reinhard Levine, a former Democratic state lawmaker and appointee of Gov. Steve Bullock.

    The application window closed June 1. A statement from Gianforte’s office said the governor will name his appointee in July. Whoever gets the nod must run for election the following year.

    Perhaps the most notable candidate is Levine herself, who threw her hat into the ring shortly after losing out on her confirmation vote — the only one of three Bullock-appointed judges this session not to receive legislative approval.

    Levine, a graduate of Carroll College and the University of Montana law school, in April became the first judge since the state established its 1972 constitution to be appointed by a governor but not confirmed by the Legislature. Her tenure was cut short after five-months as Republican lawmakers sought to reshape the courts and open opportunities for more conservative judges to take the bench.

    Levine wrote in her application that supporters had urged her to re-apply for her old job “because they know how hard I will keep working to serve the people, and how much I care about our community.”

    She wrote that she was interested in continuing work from her judgeship overseeing child abuse and neglect cases in the Great Falls area.

    Other applicants include David Joseph Grubich, who currently serves as a standing master in the 8th District largely presiding over family law cases, and Matthew Robertson, a prosecutor with the Cascade County Attorney’s office who previously served as a Special Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Corrections, defending the state from “inmate civil rights litigation” among other matters. Robertson wrote that he has served as a campaign manager for Republican legislative candidate Matthew Denny, and that he has twice already sought appointment to the district.

    Rebekah J. French, another of the applicants, clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell until March, helped the U.S. Department of Justice pursue anti-trust litigation in the early 2000s, and served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Montana district under then-U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, now a Republican state legislator representing Billings. In her application, she called herself a “judicial conservative.”

    The final applicant is Tracy Labin Rhodes, a Stanford Law grad and member of the Lower Mohawk Band of Indians whose legal career began with a job as an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. She would go on to serve as the interim director of University of Montana’s Indian Law Clinic and then in 2005 founded her own legal practice specializing in dependency and neglect cases.

    This is the first judicial appointment process to play out after the passage this year of SB140, which abolishes the Judicial Nominating Commission and gives the governor sole authority to pick nominees. Gianforte announced in May the formation of a 10-person advisory council that will assist him “in identifying exceptional candidates to serve as the district court judge in the Eighth Judicial District.

    “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,” Gianforte said in a statement at the time.

    Cascade County already faces a significant case backlog that Levine’s absence has threatened to worsen.