By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
In the courtroom where Hill County Attorney David Rice for many years called witnesses to take an oath, Rice himself Monday raised his right hand to be sworn in.
During a half-hour ceremony on the top floor of the Hill County Courthouse, Rice left behind 30 years as a prosecutor to don a judge's robe. Rice became the state's newest district judge during the ceremony, and was sworn in by the man he replaced.
Supreme Court Justice John Warner resigned from the post in May after he was awarded a spot on Montana's highest court by Gov. Judy Martz. Warner served as district judge in the 12th Judicial District in Havre for 15 years.
After taking an oath of office, Rice in turn swore in Cyndee Peterson to replace him as Hill County attorney. Peterson, a two-year member of the Hill County Attorney's Office, was selected Aug. 14 by the County Commission to succeed Rice.
A courtroom packed with family, friends, and colleagues made the brief ceremony special, Rice said.
"The hardest part was at the beginning," he said, "My wife said, "Don't look at who's all out there - you won't be able to talk."
The ceremony was attended by Chief Justice Karla Gray of the Montana Supreme Court, several district judges, city and county officials and representatives from a number of law enforcement agencies.
Rice said he was especially touched by the appearance of state District Judge Edward McLean - a former law school buddy who traveled from Missoula to attend the ceremony.
"I didn't know he was going to be there," Rice said. "I got out of the car and ran into him on the sidewalk. It was absolutely great."
Prior to being sworn in, Rice accepted a black judge's robe from Warner. After reciting an oath, Rice took the bench for the first time.
Rice took the opportunity to introduce his family, several of whom traveled from out of state for the event. He then stepped down to swear in his successor.
The ceremony was straightforward, Peterson said, joking that her oath was twice as long as Rice's.
"The emotional part for me was when Justice Warner was robing Dave," she said. "That's when I got a little choked up. It was a great ceremony."
Rice will not be able to preside over criminal cases in the 12th Judicial District for several weeks, Peterson said. He cannot act as judge in any case in which he was previously a prosecutor to avoid any conflicts of interest.
District Judge John McKeon, who has handled cases since Warner resigned, will continue to do so until Rice's old cases are resolved, Peterson said.
Rice said he has plenty to keep him busy in the meantime.
"We have new ones coming in all the time," he said. "It'll be a mixed bag for a while, but I've made arrangements with Judge McKeon to handle some of his cases in Chinook so that he can cover for me here."
Rice, 57, became a deputy Hill County attorney in 1973 after graduating from the University of Montana School of Law in Missoula. He held the position for 13 years before he was appointed to head the County Attorney's Office following the death of his predecessor. He spent the next 17 years as Hill County's top prosecutor.
He tenure is believed to be the longest in the county's history.
Peterson was raised in Circle. She received a bachelor's degree from the University of Montana before attending law school at the University of Akron, in Akron, Ohio. She was admitted to the Montana State Bar in 1997.
She worked in Chester as the deputy Liberty County attorney before accepting a job working as a clerk in Warner's office. Peterson commuted from Chester for a year before finding a home in Havre in 2000. In January 2001, she was appointed deputy Hill County attorney.