Contentious meeting lasts almost four hours

Judge Kerr said her election opponent spread mistruths
By 
KATHLEEN GILLULY
Outlook editor
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
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During a workshop meeting that spanned almost four hours, the Laurel City Council covered issues ranging from the purchase of a new garbage truck, Laurel Urban Renewal Agency grant programs, the reconstruction of S. Fourth St. and allowing chickens to be kept in the city.

The galley was packed with folks who were in attendance for a discussion on a draft ordinance which if adopted would change the qualifications required to run for City Judge, as well as make the City Court a municipal court of record. They waited an hour and a half for the issue to come up and then that took up much of the remainder of the meeting.

City Prosecutor and candidate for City Judge Juliane Lore began by presenting a comparison with other Montana courts and their ordinances and which she thought would work for Laurel. She noted that there would be several advantages to having a court of record.

“Autonomy from Billings. We are viewed as a Billings bedroom community, I think, by some people … if we establish a municipal court of our own, if we handle our own small claims, if we can issue our own warrants for felonies and misdemeanors here, and if our judge and our court were on equal standing with Billings, we will stake out our position that we will never be a Billings bedroom community. These are two cities with very different characters growing side-by-side,” she said. “This step to a court of record will strengthen our autonomy.”

The second issue Lore addressed was funding for the court changes she is promoting.

“I think the court could make this change and the funding from the city wouldn’t change much,” she said. The court could operate with the same two part-time clerks with a reshuffling of duties and with guidance from Helena, she added. Lore said she would like to tap into grant funds for things like a drug or veterans’ court. She said that folks who are sentenced in Laurel don’t have access to the similar Billings’ programs, which have proven successful.

Lore then moved on to the changes the ordinance would make based on Montana Code Annotated covering municipal court functions, the timeline, jurisdiction, residency of the judge, the use of an associate judge instead of a judge pro-tem, court clerk requirements, hours the court is open to the public, streamlining public records requests, appeals to District Court and civil causes of action.

Councilor Scot Stokes countered Lore’s arguments, immediately challenging her on her motives.

“You running for a position here in this town, why is this all happening right now?,” he asked.

She replied that the first reason was because of the city’s population. If the city’s population has or does grow to 10,000 residents, a court of record will be required, she said.

“The other reason is because we are at the end of the term,” Lore said. “I think the end of the term is the time to consider changing the requirements for the position.”

Councilman Stokes challenged that logic, since the two candidates have already filed and the campaign for the judge position is underway.

“I think the best time to look at this is at the beginning of a term, not the end,” he said.

Lore said her timing was so that the court wouldn’t be forced by the state to become a court of record mid-term.

“You’re running for the same position she is and you’re looking to eliminate the competition,” Councilor Stokes said. “I would not be surprised if Judge Kerr filed a lawsuit if this were to go through. We are in the middle of the election. This is not fair to the current judge.”

Lore said, “I respectfully disagree.” Councilor Stokes told her he thought she was trying to sabotage the election.

“I agree with Councilman Stokes. This should have been brought up last spring before the election filing,” said Councilor Richard Klose, who later clarified his response by saying he isn’t opposed to changing the court, he just thinks this is not the time to do it. “As far as I am concerned we shouldn’t discuss this until after the election.”

Councilman Richard Herr said that he doesn’t think Laurel’s population has grown to 10,000 people and that it may take another few years.

Laurel’s Chief of Police Stan Langve had a short statement on how a change to the court could help the police department with warrants and not having to go to court twice when there is an appeal, saying it would be a cost savings.

“I do agree there are some shortfalls in the police being able to do their jobs, including getting a timely warrant,” said Councilman Irv Wilke. “We need to make sure that tool is given to them, but I don’t think this is the time to do it.”

Judge Jean Kerr took to the podium to respond to Lore’s proposal. She pointed out that during Lore’s last presentation on July 6, she was in the building but had no knowledge of what issue was being discussed because of the way the item was listed on the agenda.

“Courts of limited jurisdiction have the highest caseload across the state,” she stated. “We see way more cases than any other court in the state.”

Judge Kerr explained that she is required to attend school twice a year and soon will attend her 44th training.

“I take issue with the statement that I am not qualified. I am more than qualified,” she said, referring to Lore’s testimony on July 6.

“Just because a person holds a bar card does not mean they are a good attorney,” she said. “Just as someone who has a driver’s license doesn’t mean they pay for their insurance or are a safe driver.”

Judge Kerr took exception with the idea that Laurel’s court could handle small claims, “Mistruth,” she said, noting that her clerks were aware of that and pointed it out to her on July 7.

“Even a Justice Court of record does not require an attorney,” she said. “District Court does.” She also argued that the city court currently does do both criminal and civil law and has complete jurisdiction over city ordinances.

“My cap is now $12,000, but we can’t be a court of small claims. You need to look it up if you don’t believe me. Only Justice Court can handle small claims, so that’s a mistruth,” Judge Kerr repeated.

“When I am aware that a crime like a DUI may be a felony, I take that to the police who take it to crime time so it can be heard in District Court. It all gets bonded and taken to District Court,” she said.

Judge Kerr also addressed appeals, saying that during the last four years, there have only been three appeals.

“Ms. Lore said it’s all the bad guys in Laurel that know that the police don’t have the ability to do justice … I disagree with that. We had three appeals in four years,” she said. “That’s very, very low.”

She said being a court of record would require more clerk time and more judge time and that she already has the ability to do search warrants.

“The last time I issued one was in 2017 for Officer Huertas,” she said. “That is a policy of the police department. I can also do those telephonic warrants for blood draws.” She said when she returned from her last school and informed the police of that, they made the decision not to have her issue them.

“That is a mistruth that I can’t do search warrants,” she said.

She said that she believes that, “if there is a change, it needs to be made by the citizens of Laurel. There is a Constitutional responsibility to the citizens of this town.”

She noted that citizens were required to vote on the city structure. “We have a charter system, we had people who voted that in, we used to have a mayoral system. We’re supposed to have a CAO; this is a similar situation.”

Judge Kerr said that if this ordinance were to be established in Laurel, effectively making her ineligible to run for office, there would be a lawsuit.

When this was put on the ballot it was for City Court Judge, Judge Kerr said. “The names are in hat.”

Regarding Lore, the Judge said, “She’s not the City Prosecutor when she’s doing this. She is a judicial candidate. They are held to a higher standard.”

“If it changes to a municipal court there will be a lawsuit,” Judge Kerr added.

She continued saying, “I’m a little bit chapped that she throws ethics around; there was also something about being humble and mature. I tell you, there are also ethics about telling the truth.”

The Judge also commented on residency requirements and innuendo that she couldn’t be fair.

“I can look people in the eye because I treated them fairly and because I live here,” she said.

She also addressed the competency of the Court Clerks; Laurel’s population; the number of hours she spends on civil work; Lore’s inability to understand the court structure; warrants; the selection of court baliffs; the facilities the court has to use; and the use of tape recordings by an attorney during sessions.

“There are many issues in the court that need to be addressed,” she concluded.

A commentator said she noticed that Ms. Lore didn’t stay for the discussion.

“I told Miss Lore to leave,” said City Clerk Bethany Langve. “She had things she had to take care of and I told her if there were questions she could address them at at different workshop.”

(Editor’s note:There will be a story posted online after deadline regarding infrastructure issues on S. Fourth St. and the discussion about the disbursement of funds from the Tax Increment District through the Laurel Urban Renewal Agency.)

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