District Court Judge candidate: Michele Levine

Name: Michele R. Levine

Age: 42

Occupation: Former judge, current deputy county attorney

Party affiliation: Non-partisan

Experience relevant to position sought: deputy county attorney, May 2021 to present; district court judge, Eighth Judicial District, Nov. 2020 to April 2021; civil attorney, Sept. 2012 to Nov. 2020; Toby’s House board member; Kairos Youth Homes board; Junior League of Great Falls; Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Campaign website/social media accounts, if applicableCampaign website; FacebookInstagram

Q: W924_0055_Vhy are you running for district court judge?

A: My many supporters have urged me to campaign to regain the position of judge because they know how hard I work to serve the people, and how much I care about our community, especially children. As a mother, having a safer community for our children to grow up in is very important to me while safeguarding Constitutional rights. My passions include using my time and talent to be of service to others and to make a difference. Judges make a difference in the lives of others. As a Judge, I listened deeply and carefully to all sides, followed the law, and reached reasoned conclusions. That is why I gained the support of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, public defenders, civil attorneys, and community leaders.

We are called to continually find ways to better serve people and to get at the root causes of the problem while holding people accountable to the law and keeping people safe.

I seek to regain the position of being a Judge because the District Court offers opportunities to serve crime victims, defendants, families, and civil litigants in a wide variety of contexts. When, as a society, we can find more meaningful ways to obtain justice, serve victims, and rehabilitate offenders, while making our communities safer, we all benefit. Furthermore, because of the statutory priority that criminal cases and youth in need of care cases require, the civil cases have sometimes been neglected. I worked hard to keep up with the existing and incoming cases. That is what the job requires. I will put the job first.

Q: What do you believe is the role of a district court judge?

A: The role of the judge is to follow the U.S. and Montana Constitutions and follow the law. As an attorney, as a Judge, and as a prosecutor, I have taken an oath to uphold the U.S. and Montana Constitutions.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Montana, and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity, so help me God.”

I take this oath very seriously. I will continue to protect and defend the Constitutional rights of all of us. A judge does not make law or legislate from the bench. A judge must follow the plain reading of the statutes and must follow precedent set forth in case law from the Montana Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. That is what I did as a Judge. I do not seek to be a judge for ego, for the title, or for any future ambitions. Safety and commitment to community compel me to get back on the saddle again to regain the position of Judge that I previously held.

Q: What do you believe are the top three challenges facing Cascade County?

A: Safety. A few years ago, there was a shoot-out between a triple homicide suspect and law enforcement near a Great Falls Elementary School. There was also a situation where parents murdered their five-year-old child. As a mom, I want a safer community for all of us, especially children. To have a safer community, we need to make investments in public safety. While Judges generally do not take positions on issues, we can comment on issues that directly impact us. As a current prosecutor, I am directly impacted by the proposed public safety levy, and I do support it. The levy would help with recruitment and retention of both prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies. The public safety levy would also help with pre-trial monitoring of defendants out on bond waiting for trial and to make sure that people are behaving themselves in the community, while ensuring there is room at the jail for defendants charged with or convicted of violent crimes and sex crimes. It would also add a school resource officer in the county and provide an optional opt-in program for school districts for school safety. The courthouse could also benefit from additional safety. When I get back to the bench, if the public safety levy were to come before me as a judge, I would recuse myself due to my connection to it as a prosecutor.

Shortage of judges and court staff. According to the Montana Judicial Branch, our 8th Judicial District could use six judges to manage the caseload, but we only have four judges. Each judicial department usually has over 1,200 cases. Three out of four of the Judges currently have a drug treatment court. Demand for treatment court spots can exceed supply of spots available. There has also been turnover of judicial staff, such as court reporters, as well as deputy clerks of district court. More judges and court staff would help lighten the load for everyone.

Shortage of courtrooms and courthouse space. There are only two big courtrooms that are designed to handle large jury trials. There are about five hundred pending criminal felony jury trials. People have a constitutional right to go to trial. There are also pending civil trials. There is a need for more courtroom space. I will collaborate with other stakeholders to problem solve how to best find the space for people to have their day in court.

Q: If elected, what would be your initial priorities and how would you accomplish those goals?

A: I would look at rebalancing the caseloads in our district. When the actions of the Montana Senate unnecessarily and unfortunately robbed our busy judicial district of a judge for three months by not confirming me, other judges (locally and statewide) stepped up to manage Department A’s caseload (on top of their own existing heavy caseloads). Some of those judges kept some of the Department A cases. After Judge Grubich replaced me, several attorneys have substituted him off their cases and those cases went to other judges to oversee. Department A may have fewer cases than the other departments and appears to fewer court hearings on the calendar most weeks in comparison to the other departments. For a sense of fairness and equity, I would look at whether the caseloads between the departments in the judicial district need to be rebalanced.

Our district court likely needs another treatment court. Treatment courts help people in the criminal justice system tackle substance use disorders and mental health/trauma in an effective manner with a team approach. Treatment courts also use rewards, sanctions, and treatment to get positive results. Most crimes involve drugs, alcohol, and/or mental illness. I have seen great results and recoveries from treatment court participants as the prosecutor team member currently on the Adult Drug Treatment Court team and formerly on the Veterans’ Treatment Court team. Treatment courts can help stop substance use disorders, save lives, and make our county safer by getting at root causes of the problems.

Out district needs electronic filing (e-filing). Electronic filing of court documents is working well in other judicial districts. Attorneys, judges, and clerks of district court in other districts large and small across Montana say good things about e-filing. It would help with the overburdened clerk of district court’s office. It would allow attorneys and judges to file documents at all times of the day and night. E-filing also provides for electronic notification and delivery of documents, ensuring that people receive documents in a timely way. COVID has delayed the installation of electronic filing in Cascade County. I would do my part to work with the judicial branch to bring electronic filing to Cascade County.

Q:  How would you conduct public outreach on controversial matters before the county, or to promote a general understanding of the county’s public process?

A: Judges can discuss matters that impact the courts, the Judiciary, and the administration of justice, as well as what judges actually do. I have been doing my part to be out and about in the community educating people about the courts. I have knocked doors, attended community meetings and events, and I continue to be accessible to people.

I am the only judicial candidate in this race that has worked in all three branches of government: the judicial branch, the executive branch (enforcing laws), and in the legislative branch. This unique and diversified experience has prepared me to resume the role of judge. I better understand the separation of powers, the public processes of government, and I stay in my lane as a judge.

Q: How would you approach working with county and city officials to address broader community needs and goals?

A: Some of the broader community needs and goals are beyond the role of the judge and are for the legislative and executive branches to address. However, when it comes to working together with county and city officials to address the needs of the court and the justice system, I will work in a collaborative approach as a team player and as a problem solver. I am willing to roll up my sleeves to tackle the tough challenges facing our district court. By building relationships and by being active in the community, I am learning more each day about Cascade County’s challenges and opportunities and how those issues relate to our courts. I have also worked as a small business owner and have served on the boards of non-profits. That gives me a broad understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing Cascade County at this time.

Q: What do you believe a district court judge can, or should, do in relation to improving public safety?

A: Judges have a role to play in safety such as when it comes to sentencing a criminal defendant, and such as setting bail, pursuant to the bail factors. Judges can make sure that convicted defendants that are a danger to the community are appropriately incarcerated. Some Non-violent defendants can be safely monitored in the community and can be appropriate for probation supervision. As a judge, I made the tough calls on when to give a person a chance and when to send a person to prison, while treating each person and each case fairly.

As a judge, for sentencing, I have considered the nature of the crime, the criminal history of the defendant, the wishes of crime victims, and the recommendations from the prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys (who know more about the case and the evidence) than the judge does. I followed the factors pursuant to the sentencing policies of the State of Montana, under Section 46-18-101, MCA. Those factors include punishment and accountability, protecting the public by incarcerating violent offenders, providing for restitution to victims, and ordering treatment to provide for rehabilitation. Judges also can increase safety by overseeing treatment courts. Treatment courts can get at root causes of criminal activity and make our county safer.

Q: How would you work with the sheriff’s office to ensure public safety?

A: As noted above, the public safety levy would be a critical investment in our county to help ensure safety. As a judge, and now as a prosecutor, I work with detectives and deputies from the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office regarding time sensitive search warrants and arrest warrants. As a prosecutor, I work with the sheriff’s office to prosecute criminal felonies. Prosecutors have attested that I am available for time sensitive matters. I put the job first. I keep my phone on. I strive to be available as much as possible when duty calls such as for reviewing search warrants and arrest warrants for probable cause pursuant to the Constitution. I also wish to work with the sheriff’s office and all of the stakeholders on ways to improve the safety at the courthouse for all who must use the building.

Q: How would you work with the sheriff’s office in terms of jail overcrowding as it relates to those awaiting trial?

A: As a judge and as a prosecutor, I have also reviewed requests from the sheriff’s office to release non-violent offenders from jail due to jail overcrowding. I review those cases carefully to make sure that the defendants are appropriate for community supervision. Pre-trial monitoring services would also help monitor defendants that are out on bail waiting for trial, to make sure that Defendants are following bail conditions and obeying all laws in the meantime. Pre-trial monitoring is also more cost effective than incarceration for non-violent defendants. If people misbehave, judges can revoke bail and send people back to jail.

Q: How would you approach sentencing to ensure fairness to those convicted, victims and the community while also addressing public safety?

A: As a judge, I sought to safeguard both safety and constitutional rights at the same time. Sometimes crime victims, defendants, criminal defense attorneys, and prosecutors reach agreements on the resolution of a case through a plea agreement. Often, a plea agreement recommendation strives to hold the defendant accountable, rehabilitate the defendant by requiring evaluations and treatment for chemical dependency and/or mental health. For domestic violence cases, a recommendation for batterer’s intervention is commonly made. Unfortunately, there are times when a crime victim or key witness recants, will not cooperate, or cannot be located. In cases with some flaws, the parties might seek to get the probation supervision time that is possible, knowing that it might not be possible to get a conviction at trial. There is so much that a Judge and the public do not know about cases. Even when prosecutors thought a case was strong, juries have acquitted defendants of charges sometimes. When the prosecutor and defense counsel are warning the Judge that a case has its flaws, the judge would be wise to listen and heed the information from the parties. The parties know more about the case and the evidence than the judge does. As a judge, and now as a prosecutor, I understand that having a few years of supervision on probation may be better than no supervision at all. As a prosecutor, I know there are some crime victims, including child sex abuse victims, who did not want a case to go to trial and who would have felt re-victimized by being put on the stand and forced to tell the horrors of the situation to strangers. Some crime victims have also refused to come to court. It is difficult to prosecute a case without the victim’s cooperation and participation. As a current prosecutor and former Judge, I better understand the complexities of cases and what happens behind the scenes and will bring that understanding to the bench.

Q: What do you believe a district court judge can do to ensure speedy trials and lessen the backlog of criminal cases in the local court system?

A: The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article II, § 24 of the Montana Constitution guarantee the right to a speedy trial. Courts evaluate a speedy trial claim by balancing four factors: (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reasons for the delay, (3) the accused’s responses to the delay, and (4) prejudice to the accused.

I will hold pre-trial status hearings to help sort out which cases are ready for trial or not and when further delay can become prejudicial. Status hearings also help identify which cases are close to a plea agreement or not, or which clients are failing to appear in court and are not in touch with their attorneys. Complicating factors are the shortage of judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and court rooms that can accommodate large juries. I will work with the other Judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys to prioritize for trial the oldest cases where the defendant is incarcerated.

When judges reject binding plea agreements, it can force more cases to go to trial that could have otherwise resolved. That can increase the backlog, not lesson it. It can also increase expense to the taxpayer to force parties to go to trial when they could have otherwise reached a fair compromise. As a judge, I listened to the parties regarding the sentencing factors and the strengths and weaknesses of each case before deciding to accept or reject a plea agreement.

Prosecutors have an ethical duty to dismiss a case when the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt cannot be maintained. It is not a judge’s job to micromanage the players on the field. It is the judge’s job to be a neutral referee. I am the only candidate in this race with prosecutorial experience and that will help me be an even better judge and referee when I get back to the bench.

Q: What do you envision your working relationship with court/county staff would look like?

A: As a judge, I was a team player regarding the needs of the district. For example, I did not play games in fighting over court rooms when it comes to scheduling court hearings or trials. I also tried to avoid scheduling court hearings over the top of other judges’ court hearings. I tried to treat everyone with respect including court staff. I do not believe in using power to unnecessarily berate, belittle, embarrass, or humiliate people in court whether it be attorneys, defendants, or court staff. I will work collaboratively with the necessary stakeholders regarding the needs of the District Court.

Q: Any additional comments on your plans if elected (but please be concise)?

A: I want a safer community for all, while safeguarding constitutional rights for all of us. I want our kids to have a safer place to grow up. That should be common ground. At the end of the day, I want to agree with Jo Cox that we have “far more in common than that which divides us.”

While people may not remember what you say, they will remember how you treated them. As a Judge, I regularly dealt with people at their worst, but I tried to handle each person in a professional and respectful manner, knowing that each person, each victim, each defendant, each attorney, and each witness is a human being, and may be someone’s child, father, mother, sister, brother, spouse, or friend.

If elected, I will use judicial power judiciously and carefully, within the Constitutional boundaries for the judiciary. As I Judge, I gave people a chance to be heard, without being harsh or cruel. This approach is needed at a time when people are losing faith in all branches of government. I will continue to seek to be a judge for all people from all walks of life and backgrounds. As a judge, I put aside my own perspectives and beliefs to follow the law and Constitution as they are, not as I want them to be. That may result in getting outcomes that I may not like, but that is how the rule of law works. Restoring me to the bench is a way to restore fairness, independence, and integrity to our court during this challenging time.