If Sen. Jerry O’Neil, R-Kalispell, gets his way, he may finally have a shot at a career in law outside area Indian reservations.
Last week, O’Neil asked Flathead County commissioners to reconsider a resolution passed at the end of January that, along with establishing the county’s justice court as a court of record, added a stipulation that justice court judges, or justices of the peace, must be licensed attorneys.
O’Neil, who is a paralegal and practices law on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where he is a licensed tribal attorney, was held in contempt of court and ordered not to practice law off the Blackfeet Reservation by Lake County District Court Judge Kim Christopher in late 2004 after Christopher heard evidence that O’Neil had practiced law without a license.
O’Neil was preparing to register as a candidate in this year’s race for justice court judge when he found out about the new requirements.
According to Commissioner Joe Brenneman, the commissioners will likely take a second look at the requirement next week. Justice Court Judge David M. Ortley, who recommended to the county commissioners that the requirements be changed, and who is running for reelection, did not return calls for comment.
Explaining his own request, O’Neil says, “I do not believe that our justice system should be open only to those who have graduated from ABA [American Bar Association] accredited schools.”
O’Neil also says Montana’s Constitution doesn’t allow commissioners to change the judge’s job requirements with resolutions. He notes that the Legislature had considered a bill that would have made an attorney’s license a statewide requirement for justice court judgeship in its last session, but removed that provision from the bill.
In the end, O’Neil says, he’s fighting for democracy.
“I think it’s our right to vote for the candidate of our choice. In Russia you vote for anyone you want as long as they belong to the Communist Party,” O’Neil says, conceding that “maybe it’s changed in Russia. But we still just have the ABA in Montana.”