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Lake County Justice of Peace candidates speak on qualifications

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LAKE COUNTY — After eight years on the bench, Justice of the Peace Randy Owens has decided to leave the position at the end of his term. This leaves locals Michael Larson and Rick Schoening as the two candidates for the nonpartisan position. Each answered questions to help voters better understand their qualifications and priorities should they be elected. 

Q: What are your qualifications for the position of Justice of the Peace? 

Larson: “Foremost, I’m a fully certified sitting judge. I can be sworn in immediately as Justice of the Peace, all I’d have to do is take the oath. I have the experience, knowledge and necessary wisdom to manage a courtroom, as well as the complexity of the office of Justice of the Peace, including clerical staff, attorneys, the jail and many other entities of the judicial system.

“It is a very unique situation for Lake County … that a sitting judge is running for Justice of the Peace. It would be an excellent service to Lake County if I were elected to maintain the job currently being held by Justice of the Peace Randy Owens and his staff.” 

Schoening: “One thing that I will be bringing to this office is over 35 years’ experience enforcing the law, and seeing the law applied, as it was written, to the public.

“When I apply for a search warrant the judge just signs the search warrant, but I’ve been there kicking the doors down, violating people’s privacy. I know what it’s like. I’m a person from the trenches, as far as law enforcement goes. That kind of experience – you can’t get that, if you’re a layperson. I’m going to be bringing this wealth of experience of applying the law, seeing it applied and how it affects people.”

Q: What is your background?

Larson: “I was born and raised in Missoula, graduated from Hellgate High School. I have bachelor’s degrees in American History and Sociology and took graduate courses in Business Administration at Utah State University. And I’m an Alum with the University of Montana. I raised my family here. My wife’s a teacher at SKC.

“For my professional background, I was a rehab counselor for five plus years. I have 37 years as a business person in Lake County, have owned and operated three very successful businesses at the same time. I’ve been an active member of the community, including being on the board of both the Polson and the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been on the board of Mission Mountain Enterprise, chair of the Montana Centennial for Lake County, volunteered at the Bison Range, substitute judge for Justice of the Peace Chuck Woodson … I was (also) chairman of the Lake County Republican Central Committee.

“I think one part of my past that’s relevant is that I’ve refed football for 25 years. It’s an excellent preparation for being judge. You study hard the rules, you apply thousands of them in seconds, where wise judgement is fundamental.” 

Schoening: “I came to Montana in 1975 to go to the University of Montana and get a wildlife biology degree. In 1979, I was hired by MT FWP as a game warden. I worked through my senior year as a warden, then when I graduated, I went to my first warden district in Sydney.

“I came to Polson in 1986 as a game warden. When I moved in here there was no working agreement with the Tribes at all, so my biggest job was to get along with the Tribes and make it work, and I did that. I was game warden for 21 years, retired in 2007.

“I spent a couple years in Hawaii at their Fish and Game as hunter education coordinator, missed Montana and came back. Then I was recruited by Polson Police Chief Wade Nash to work as a police officer. I worked as a patrol officer for 6.5 years, then went to work as the detective, doing all the high-level felony work … the stuff that’s no fun to do, for two years.

I’ve been retired for the last two and a half years, but the need to serve the public is still with me.”

Q: Is there anything you’d like to say about the position or opportunity itself?

Larson: “There’s always new ideas in the judicial system to be explored. It is imperative to be nonpartisan, and that’s become an issue in this election. Justice of the Peace is a part of the judicial branch, unlike law enforcement and prosecutors that are part of the executive branch. When a citation is given by the law officer, he says the person is guilty of a crime … When a person enters the court room of the judicial branch, he or she is innocent by law until they plead guilty or are found guilty through the court system. A judge cannot have a predisposed position of whether a person is innocent or guilty.

(I want to) be clear that many judges in the courts of limited jurisdiction, many have been past law enforcement people and have been excellent judges. But having been a former law enforcement person, by itself, does not give you credentials to be a judge. It’s a flawed assumption in and of itself that (someone who) has been in law enforcement would be a strong judge. Some people think they’d be a strong judge because they’d be real harsh on crime, but in the world of being a judge, everybody will tell you that the priority is it be fair. And fair is equally necessary by law for both the accused as well as the prosecution. So there is a clear reason why both the Montana and U.S. constitutions offer separation of judicial and executive branches. It is not, in and of itself, a segue.

“In conclusion, the position of Justice of the Peace is a very serious job, very sobering. It’s a judge of the community. It serves mostly the general, common citizen, whether it’s in traffic, criminal, civil, or small claims court, we are the judge for the community … It’s a small town, there’s a lot of names you’re familiar with. It’s an important job and it really needs to be someone who’s committed. It’s never about yourself. I feel I have those qualifications and I know the people that I work with.” 

Schoening: “Common sense is huge with me. I’m a big supporter and believer in the Montana and U.S. Constitution. If the laws that are written in the legislature are in direct violation of the constitution, in my opinion they’re null and void … Granted as Justice of the Peace I won’t be able to overturn legislation like the District Court can, but I bring a real interest in the law itself. 

“I’m not going to stir the pot. Randy Owens has done a great job the last eight years making it a well-oiled machine. I’m going to continue a lot of the programs he got started … I’d look at different sentencing techniques maybe, maybe some more community service. Our jail is full with violent defenders. You can’t kick out a violent person to make someone spend a night for a DUI, so there’s going to be some challenges there. But I’ve worked with the jail staff for years as a police officer and detective, so they know me.

“Working as a detective for a couple years, I really gained a caring for the victims of crimes, especially children and elderly. Victims will not be forgotten about in my court. People are going to have to pay restitution. So many times you read about a court case going on (and) it’s all about the defendant. What about the people they allegedly victimized? I’m a real victim’s advocate in that way.

“It’s a position that’s elected by the people, and that’s who I’ll be serving. That’s why it’s not appointed by anybody, the people appoint their Justice of the Peace. It’s a position that goes way back … it was the keeper of the peace. You dealt with people who were having conflicts ... As a police officer and former game warden, I know how to keep the peace on that end and I believe I can do a very good job in the office. That’ll be my pledge to the voters: they can count on me and they’ll be proud of the job I do for them.”

Lake County absentee ballots will be mailed on Oct. 14. Polls will be open on Nov. 8 for Election Day. 

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