Many people know the justice court handles criminal cases, but might not be aware of civil issues covered there. What is the the function of the court in handling civil issues, and what kind of civil cases and issues are handled there?
Barger: While the Justice Court handles many misdemeanor criminal matters, they are also responsible for two separate civil courts. While criminal matters are filed by the state or city having jurisdiction for violation of laws or ordinances, civil matters may be brought to Justice Court by individuals or other legal entities for money owed to them for qualifying contract disputes or damages. Civil matters are conducted under their own rules of procedure and consequently the documents, discovery, and deadlines are completely different.
The regular civil court of the Justice Court has a monetary cap of $7,000. The small claims civil court has a monetary cap of $3,000 and must be a fixed amount that is easy to establish or be for recovery of specific personal property.
The small claims civil court operates on an expedited schedule. These two civil courts offer the public a way to more easily access the court system for relief as to certain claims such as landlord/tenant disputes, collection of money, return of personal property and damages to property.
Huston: Hill County Justice court handles approximately 400 civil cases per year. These cases range from small claims up to $3,000, and has the authority over civil issues up to $7,000. These cases include, but are not limited to, property and monetary disputes, landlord/tenant disputes, contracts and accident claims from misdemeanor traffic incidents. It also includes hearings on temporary restraining orders and punitive damages can also be awarded in Justice Court.
Do you think the Legislature should take action to change state laws regarding medical marijuana, and, if so, what changes do you think should be made?
Do you think the Legislature should take action to change state laws regarding driving under the influence of intoxicants and minor in possession, and, if so, what changes do you think should be made?
Barger: I believe that one of the most basic of an accused person’s Constitutional rights is the right to be brought before and tried by an impartial judge or jury.
My experience with the legal and court system has impressed upon me the importance of a judge making the commitment to lay aside their personal opinions and follow the law. I have made that commitment and throughout any term of office I am fortunate enough to serve, I will be setting aside my personal opinions regarding the law.
I will guard constitutional rights, respectfully listen to all sides, find the facts and apply existing Montana law. This is the only way the members of Hill County can be assured that their Justice Court will be impartial, fair and consistent. While I clearly understand all sides of the issues and controversies currently surrounding the DUI, MIP and medical marijuana laws, legislating from the bench is not a proper function of a member of the judiciary branch of the government. The making or changing of policies and laws falls to the legislative branch of the government and voters need to make their feelings on these issues very clear to their legislative candidates.
Huston: Judges don’t touch Legislature. It is not up to judges to determine penalties in Montana laws. I think it would be inappropriate for me as a prospective judge to offer any personal opinion on either matter. The objective of being a judge is being unbiased and impartial. I refuse to allow any personal opinions to be brought into any case. It is up to the judge to follow the laws and penalties set by Legislature not to offer opinions on what those laws and penalties should be.
What factors would you look at in sentencing people convicted of crimes in your court?
Barger: The sentencing policies set forth in Section 46-18-101(2), M.C.A. direct the Court to, “(a) punish each offender commensurate with the nature and degree of harm caused by the offense and to hold the offender accountable; (b) to protect the public, reduce crime, and increase the public sense of safety by incarcerating violent offenders and serious repeat offenders; (c) to provide restitution, reparation and restoration to the victim of the offense; and (d) to encourage and provide opportunities for the offender’s self-improvement to provide rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into the community.”
In abiding by this policy I will be considering the nature of, circumstances surrounding, and seriousness of the offense, the physical and/or financial harm caused to any victim, the protection of the public, the likelihood of the offender to re-offend, the age and past criminal history of the offender, the ability of the offender to pay, the offender’s chemical dependency, anger, mental health issues, and the recommendations of counsel contained in any plea agreement.
After consideration of these factors I will fashion a sentence for each offender within the minimum, maximum and mandatory penalties for each offense as set by Montana law.
Huston: Although I am a firm believer in consistency, I would have to say there are a number of factors that will play into a sentence I will impose.
I think first and foremost would be previous convictions. An individual’s criminal history will certainly play a part in a sentence. I would also look at whether or not previous charges resulted in suspended or deferred sentences, whether those were completed sentences or if they were revoked for failing to pay fines, attend classes/evaluations, failing to pay restitution or other non compliance.
Other factors will play a role depending on the nature of the crime and the extent of damages. As an example, a misdemeanor assault may be a result of simply a threat of bodily injury whereas you may have a misdemeanor assault where the victim was badly beaten and has injuries and the potential for monetary losses. These two cases would clearly be handled differently.