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New Lake County attorney sworn in

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POLSON — Molly Owen, Lake County’s new District Court judge, swore in new Lake County Attorney James Lapotka Thursday afternoon before a crowd of well-wishers. Lapotka ran unopposed for the post in the recent primary election, and replaces Steve Eschenbacher, who retired six months shy of the end of his second term in office. 

Owen, who officially donned her judicial robes June 20, noted that Lapotka and Eschenbacher were instrumental in hiring her seven years ago as a deputy county attorney. “I can’t thank them enough for their advice and support,” she said. “They were two of the best bosses I could have imagined.”

Lapotka, a native of Madison, WI, earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. In 2007, he and his wife, Carol Lynn, moved to Missoula where he graduated from law school at the University of Montana in 2010. 

The family moved to St. Ignatius, and Lapotka spent a year clerking in the 20th Judicial District for Judges Kim Christopher and C.B. McNeil before moving across the hall to the county attorney’s office in 2011. He most recently served as the chief criminal deputy county attorney, supervising three attorneys and four support staff. 

Over the years, Lapotka has prosecuted more than a thousand felony criminal cases, including homicides, rapes, felony DUIs, burglaries and drug crimes. He also spent four years serving part time as city attorney for St. Ignatius.

The Lake County Commissioners appointed Lapotka to complete Eschenbacher’s term. He’ll be sworn in again Jan. 1 with other elected county officials.

In his new role, Lapotka aims to “redouble our concentration on public safety while making good decisions about who’s in custody and good decisions about prosecuting violent crime.”

He’s a proponent of Drug Court, Lake County’s alternative route for people with addictions who are committed to recovery, and was one of the original volunteers when Judge Jim Manley started the court in 2015. 

“It’s a valuable tool for reintegrating repeat offenders back to the community and providing them transitional support and wrap-around services,” he says.  

Lapotka notes that people who commit drug crimes are often sent to treatment, and then return to the same environment that contributed to their addictions. That cycle “sets people up for failure and wastes the time/money/effort that went into the treatment in the first place.” 

‘I’m happy that Judge Owen is running the drug court program and my office is fully committed to supporting her efforts,” he adds.

Commissioner Bill Barron had appreciative words for both the departing and incoming county attorneys. “I was a little hesitant when Steve was elected because we didn’t always agree on things,” he said of Eschenbacher, who was a public defender before he became county attorney in 2015. 

“But he’s been fantastic. He really cares about the county and tries to do the right thing,” said Barron. “I think he’s worked very hard for the people of Lake County and I think James is going to work just as hard.”

Both men, he added, are regular visitors to the commission chambers. “Checking in and giving updates has been really beneficial.”

The courthouse’s legal arena has seen a fair amount of upheaval in recent months, with the departure a few months ago of civil attorney Wally Congden, who was replaced by deputy county attorney Molly Owen, who was then appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte to replace retiring Judge Jim Manley. 

Lapotka, for one, is ready for more continuity. “I’m looking forward to having everybody fully staffed and our new District Court judge on board and getting back to work and getting things done.”

The Lapotkas and their two children live in Polson, where Carol Lynn owns the handMADE Montana store on Main Street. When not at the courthouse, the new county attorney enjoys kayaking, drift boating, backcountry snowboarding, hunting, fishing – “basically any activity involving elevation and water or snow.” He also serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County.

Passionate about climbing mountains, he’s scaled 30 of the “14ers” in Colorado (peaks that are at least 14,000 feet high), but considers ascents of Grey Wolf, Calowahcan, and McDonald in the Missions “all more meaningful.” 

“The first time I drove over the Bison Range and saw the Missions I knew I wanted to be here,” he says. 

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