Candidates share views at 20th Judicial District Forum
Incumbent Deborah “Kim” Christopher, Ashley Morigeau, and Ben Anciaux are candidates for district judge. All three attended a recent public forum hosted by the Lake County Republican Women and the Lake County Democrats. The forum was held at Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Performing Arts Center in Pablo on May 8. All three candidates will be listed on June 5 primary ballots with the two candidates who receive most votes advancing to November’s general election. The elected judge will conduct trials in Lake and Sanders counties.
First, the candidates were asked which changes they would make if elected judge. Both Anciaux and Morigeau began their answers by suggesting changes in the way that the court handles drug offenses.
Anciaux praised the recent implementation of drug treatment court in the district as a success. He said that the number of drug-related cases is so high that, if elected, he would add another drug treatment court to the district.
Morigeau said that she would also expand drug treatment court if elected.
“It helps people get sober with a community to support them,” she said.
Morigeau added that the model used in Missoula, where there is a drug treatment court for veterans and one for families, might work in Lake and Sanders counties.
She also said that the use of video technology could make the courts more efficient and reduce the amount of time that people need to spend attending court.
Christopher said that if re-elected she would focus on adding a courtroom, and trying cases in a timely manner.
She added that she felt that the resolutions to the drug-related cases that the other candidates had spoken about were dictated to the judge by the law.
“I’m not going to get into the need of rehabilitating someone,” she said. “That’s a medical concern the criminal justice system is not equipped to handle. So I do agree with medical courts and veterans courts but they need to happen before someone’s charged.”
The candidates were asked which creative solutions they would use to avoid placing all offenders in jail in light of recent state budget cuts to treatment options.
Morigeau referred to the current drug treatment court as an example of a creative solution. A grant funds the court and those who attend pay for some parts of their treatment. She added that she would collaborate with attorneys to come up with creative solutions.
“I think I’m a good candidate because I’m always willing to learn from anyone,” she said.
“The bottom line is that as a judge your obligation is to society as a whole,” Christopher said. She said that she would rely directly on the law to make decisions on criminal cases. Christopher read from Montana law concerning criminal offenses.
“I used up a lot of my time reading you the law. But you know what, that’s what judges do,” she said. She said that she trusts the legislature to change the law if it is proven to be inappropriate.
“Treatment I think is absolutely critical,” she added.
Anciaux said that he would rely on fact-based consequences to keep people from re-offending and allow them to become contributing members of society. He said that it is as expensive to send someone to jail as it is to send them to Harvard University.
“Or we can try probation or treatment which are less expensive and may take care of the problem,” he said.
When asked whether she thought the courthouse infrastructure needed improvements, Christopher said that having a high functioning facility is an important part of “stewardship,” which she will focus on if re-elected. She said that there is not enough room in jail, but that she wants to see less pre-trail incarceration.
“We need more space in our jail for people who need to be there,” she said.
“If you want a jail that is more efficient you’re going to have to plunk down $20 million so other answers need to be found,” Anciaux said. He added that work release is a solution being used currently.
“If we build a bigger jail, it’s going to be full in a matter of days,” Morigeau said. She added that while she realized that jail space is limited, she thinks that the taxpayer, not the judge, should decide on which improvements are made.
The moderator asked why Native Americans are overrepresented as defendants in the court system, and how they would make sure that sentencing is culturally sensitive.
Anciaux said that part of the reason that there are more Native Americans than people of other demographics in the court system is that Native Americans are more likely to be impacted by poverty and mental illness, which increase the likelihood that a person will break the law. He said that in addition, law enforcement officers return to the same places where they have arrested people before, looking for illegal activity.
“What they’re doing is profiling,” Morigeau said of this activity. “They’re hanging out in areas where tribal members live.”
She added that to make the courts more culturally sensitive she would involve tribal elders and culture committees in shaping drug treatment courts if elected.
Christopher said that while she agrees that tribal members are more likely to be charged, she thinks that the tribal police and Salish Kootenai College are resources that support tribal members. She added that she grew up on the reservation, studied liberal arts, and had friends who were tribal members.
“It’s been my passion to get the people who I represent and to make differences if I can within the context of who they are,” she said. “But they have to be held accountable.”
Candidates told the audience members how they would prevent criminal issues. Morigeau said that a judge cannot prevent criminal acts.
“But what separates me from the other candidates is awareness of how people end up there,” she said. She also said that she would support the addition of a sober living facility in the district so that people could recover from addiction before they encounter legal trouble.
“The only role that the judge can play is deterrent,” Christopher said. She said that she has been substituted off of a lot of criminal cases because she “expects that there are consequences for criminal actions.”
“Somewhere along the line that individual who’s committed the crime has to take responsibility for what they’ve done,” she said.
“You’ve got two deterrents: education or jail,” Anciaux said. He said that studies show that education works better than jail.
“The world that the people who write the laws live in is not the world that the majority of the people who are prosecuted in district court live in,” he said.
Anciaux said that a judge’s role is to educate the public on how the court system works, so that people better understand the reasons that people do drugs or commit crimes.
Finally, the candidates shared what their greatest strength is.
“Proven experience and uncompromising integrity,” Christopher answered.
“The bottom line is I am going to follow the law,” she said.
Christopher noted that the forum questions focused on criminal law, which is only a portion of the district judge’s caseload.
“There’s an incredible amount of really important stuff that we do in chambers that you don’t even know and that these folks have never done,” she said.
She added, “You need the experience of someone who knows the courtroom, who has the training. And you can’t get that anywhere else except doing it.”
Anciaux said that he has “the ability to listen to people and change my mind.”
He also said that he is in trial “more than any other attorney in this town.” He said that this has given him an understanding of the judge’s role.
He refuted Judge Christopher’s assertion that she was the only candidate with experience in civil law, saying that he has worked civil cases throughout his many years practicing law.
“A thing that I’m really good at is doing the work,” he said, “and it is a massive amount of work.”
Morigeau said that that though she is “pretty new” in her legal career, she has handled large cases. She said that she would look to Judge Manley as a mentor on civil law, and do her own research on the subject.
Morigeau added that she is a “self-starter.”
She said that her experience as a public defender has prepared her to work hard with the resources available.
“I’m one of the most experienced attorneys in the office. I’m one of the mentors. People come to me. I know my stuff,” Morigeau said.