In the last weeks of 2005, Bitterrooters were asked to choose between an alcoholic judge and a crusading moralist. They chose the judge.
The facts of District Judge Jeff Langton’s drunken-driving conviction and subsequent probation violation (and state Supreme Court censure) have moved well beyond the titillation stage. Few Bitterrooters remain seriously interested. That disinterest manifested itself shortly after Christmas when the petition drive to recall him from office failed.
Why didn’t Bitterrooters line up in droves to sign the petition? For one thing, the respect they have for Langton as a judge exceeds any concern they may have for his drinking habits. It’s his behavior on the bench, rather than on the barstool, for which he is judged by his fellow Bitterrooters. He’s tough when he has to be, compassionate when he can be. With his acute legal mind and his soft-spoken shyness, he’s seen as sort of a cross between Atticus Finch and Marc Racicot.
Then there’s his mother, Louise. Who in the Bitterroot doesn’t know and absolutely adore Louise Langton, that vivacious socialite whose presence at every lively soiree is a virtual guarantee? She’s a good ambassador of goodwill for her son.
In the other corner, we have the judge’s chief nemesis, Rev. Harris Himes, the self-appointed guardian of Bitterroot morals, who launched the recall petition. Strong dislike of Himes, whom at least one Bitterrooter calls “Torquemada,” is likely another reason the effort failed. Himes, an outsider suspected of hailing from the “C” state, thought he could unseat a well-liked local boy, but his plan backfired and public hostility has turned on him.
Bitterrooters have an instinctive knee-jerk reaction against anyone telling them how to think, and that includes the Rev. Himes, who conveys more than a whiff of the snake-oil salesman. How many unseat-Langton signatures he gathered is unknown, since he won’t share them. All he’ll say is he fell less than 1,000 signatures short of the approximately 4,300 he needed to place Langton’s recall on the ballot. The Ravalli County elections administrator says Himes turned in fewer than 600 signatures. Himes says he didn’t turn in additional signatures—assuming he had any—because the signers feared judicial revenge.
Himes has also been linked to that other Christian crusader Bitterrooters love to hate: Dallas Erickson, who has labored mightily to rid the Bitterroot Valley of nonexistent strip clubs.
Bitterrooters appear to have a deep well of forbearance for local boy Langton, even after recent reports that the judge is under investigation again, this time for allegedly gambling in a Stevensville casino in November, in violation of Hamilton Judge Patricia Sanders’ sentencing order in Langton’s drunk-driving case last March. As for moralizer Himes, on the other hand, one local seems to have summarized local sentiment when he recently opined that the anti-Langton brigadier “needs to get a life and get the f***out of town.”