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New district court judge selected

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LAKE COUNTY — When Molly Owen takes her oath of office June 20, her appointment as judge for the 20th Judicial District represents a generational shift. At 35, she’ll be one of the youngest judges ever appointed to the bench in Montana – a career move she describes as humbling, challenging, and “somewhat shocking.”

“I’m extremely honored to be appointed by Gov. Gianforte and I’m looking forward to serving the citizens of Lake and Sanders counties,” she said in an interview last week. 

“I know as judge I’ll have a wide-ranging ability to effect positive change in the community and I’m excited to do that.” Owen replaces Judge Jim Manley, who retired June 1 after a decade on the bench.

As a Millennial, Owen sees her youth as a plus. During the in-person interview she had May 26 in Helena with Gov. Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, “I told the governor that if he does appoint me, he’s making a long-term investment in me because I see this as a career.” 

“I want to learn and grow in this position,” she said. “I’m young and very energetic and I’m looking forward to learning, developing, and being in this job for a long time.”

Owen said her sit-down with the governor was far less intimidating than her interview May 19 with the 12-member local advisory committee, appointed this spring to make recommendations from the pool of four applicants. “Those are all people I’ve worked with, people I respect and see day to day. I did not want to mess up.” 

According to committee chair and prominent Polson attorney John Mercer, Owen brings several valuable qualities to the bench – including her youth, which “provides an opportunity for many years of experienced service.”

“Molly is extremely bright and hard working,” he said last week. “She understands the role and enormous responsibilities of a district judge.” 

Owen had a dozen letters of support from other quarters as well, including civic leaders, fellow attorneys, and law enforcement personnel. Clerk of District Court Lyn Fricker praised her professional demeanor and preparedness. 

“Molly Owen can made decisions on her own without being intimidated,” wrote Fricker, adding that the candidate “would do what it takes to be the honest and fair judge that the people of Lake County deserve.” 

The committee also recommended local attorney Ben Anciaux for the governor’s consideration. The other two candidates were Kathryn McEnery and Alisha Rapkoch.

Owen, who is married to Polson High teacher and wrestling coach Brett Owen, moved to the Mission Valley in 2015. She met her husband-to-be while playing intramural softball in her hometown of Phoenix where he was student teaching. They now have a 5-year-old daughter who starts kindergarten this year. 

The daughter of two attorneys, Owen earned her law degree in 2012 from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State in Tempe, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude, earned the Excellence for the Future Award, and was managing editor of the Arizona State Law Journal. She also clerked for the Arizona Court of Appeals for a year.

Her parents were each passionate about their vocation, which helped motivate Owen to pursue a law degree. “They were, for sure, my biggest inspiration,” she says. “I saw how much they enjoyed their jobs and what a difference they made in their community.”

Retired now, they continue to be a source of advice, support, and grounding. Her husband and his large extended family have also been “extremely supportive.”

Although she interviewed with several large law firms post-graduation, Owen decided to become a prosecutor, working for the city of Mesa – the third largest city in Arizona with a population of around 500,000 – for about 18 months. As assistant city prosecutor, she litigated around 1,000 jury trials for misdemeanor crimes – many involving domestic violence. 

That stint, and a cousin’s experience of spousal abuse, led to her work with the Lake County Attorney’s office, where she spent seven years as a special victims prosecutor, a position funded by a grant from the Violence Against Women Act. Owen admits that it’s tough duty to deal day in, day out with domestic violence. 

“Such difficult cases can engender a lot of vicarious trauma,” she says. “But I have worked with so many wonderful people, women especially, who really made it worth it.” 

“I had to get really good at compartmentalizing aspects of my work because it would be impossible for me to do that job if I wasn’t good at setting boundaries and prioritizing tasks,” she adds. 

Owen expects to bring those same skills to her new role, as well as a knack for organization and an ability to harness technology in ways she believes can serve the court and its constituents. Owen does all her legal research online and has spearheaded a “paperless” approach in both the county attorney’s office and in her current role as the county’s civil attorney.  

She also envisions bringing a laptop to the courtroom, along with a wireless printer, so she can print judgements and warrants on the spot – a time-saver for all concerned – and especially valuable with a workload of over 900 cases on her docket at any one time. 

That skill set was apparently impressive to the governor, who praised her in a press release as “a strong supporter of drug treatment courts and maximizing efficiencies in the courtroom.” 

The drug court is an important legacy of her predecessor, Judge Manley, who initiated the alternative to criminalization of addiction-related crimes in 2015. 

As a prosecutor, Owen says she’s often been frustrated with the criminal justice system’s approach to people with addiction issues. “You seem to see the same people over and over again, and you can sometimes feel like nothing we’re doing is helping much.”

Drug court, on the other hand, builds self-esteem and community connection and support.  “I’m very committed to keeping drug court running and continuing to do the great things Judge Manley has already implemented,” she said. 

She adds that she considers the former judge a valuable mentor, and says it’s been “a privilege to practice as an attorney before him.” Other judges in Montana’s judicial court system have also reached out to her, “and been extremely helpful and kind. It’s fair to say I’m one of the youngest and I feel very humble to be part of this very impressive group of people.” 

Owen, who has served as town attorney for St. Ignatius since 2017, attends her final council meeting June 7. “It’s been one of the most professionally and personally rewarding parts of my career,” she says. “It’s definitely something I’ll miss.” The experience also gives her a broader understanding of civil law and land-use issues, a valuable background in her new post. 

The new judge will have to run for election in 2024 to complete Manley’s six-year term, and – if elected – run again in 2026 for a full term. Having never run for office, she finds the prospect somewhat intimidating. 

“But the theme of my professional and personal life is to be as prepared as possible,” she adds with a grin. “So I’ll probably start looking into it soon.”

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