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Race for Hill County attorney flares up

 

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Campaigning in the Democratic primary has stepped up to a new level, with a former Hill County attorney backing her successor and raising questions about the qualifications of the opponents. Cyndee Peterson, who left the office of Hill County attorney in 2008 to take a job in Missoula with the state U.S. Attorney's Office, sent a letter to Hill County voters dated May 1. In the letter, Peterson wrote that she is endorsing Gina Dahl, who was appointed to replace her and is running to remain in the office. She also raised specific questions about the qualifications of Dahl's opponents in the primary, Havre attorney Randy Randolph and Hill County Deputy Attorney Lindsay Lorang. Randolph said this week he does have the experience he needs, and Lorang said Peterson's facts listed in the letter are not accurate. Randolph, Peterson wrote, has focused on defending people charged with criminal offenses and has never prosecuted a case or represented a county. Randolph said this week that while he never has prosecuted a case, he believes that in his practice he has been involved with "many more" cases than either of his opponents. While he never has represented a county government, he said, in his work on local Indian reservations he has represented tribal Governments. "That's not a lot different than a county government," Randolph added. Peterson wrote that Lorang, who started working as a Hill County deputy attorney in the fall of 2007, does not yet meet the legal requirement of being admitted to practice law for three years, and "will only have met this requirement by mere weeks at the time the general election is held." She also wrote that Lorang has never handled civil and departmental issues for the county, advised the county commission or county boards, dealt with labor or employment issues for the county, and has limited trial experience and limited legal knowledge as a prosecutor. Dahl said earlier this week that, although she had not read the letter before Peterson sent it, she generally agrees that Lorang's experience on those issues is limited at best. Lorang said she meets the legal requirements of three years of practice now. Under a rul ing by the Montana Supreme Court, she said, work done by a law student under the Student Practice Rule counts toward the legal requirements of being eligible for the office of county attorney. Lorang said that with her work as student attorney in t h e Ye l l ows tone County At torney's Of f ice and the Missoula County Attorney's Office as well as the Federal Defender's Office in Missoula, she has more than four years toward the requirement. Peterson said that she disagrees with the Supreme Court rul ing and that the work Lorang did as a student did not prepare her for the work she would have to do as the county attorney. The 1996 Montana Supreme Court decision in Shapiro v. Je f f e rson County, whi c h requested the court to disqualify an attorney appointed to fill a vacancy in the Jefferson County attorney position, was a ruling on a very specific situation and candidate, Peterson said. The court ruled 4-2 that the attorney could use her student practice time toward the requirement, overturning a previous district court decision. Peterson said that the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Karla Gray with Justice James Nelson concurring, shows why the student practice time should not be used. In the dissenting opinion, Gray wrote that the students performing duties under the supervision of practicing attorneys had met none of the legal requirements to be admitted to to practice law in Montana. While legal duties may have been performed, the student had not graduated from law school, had not gone through the required testing or been approved by the Supreme C o u r t ' s C ommi t t e e o n Character and Fitness, Gray wrote. Peterson said the duties performed under student practice in no way prepare a person to perform duties such as advising county commissions or boards or handling contractual or employment issues. "If she is relying on her experience as a student, then she needs to tell that to the voters," Peterson said. "The bottom line is, the Legislature set a statute setting what they thought was appropriate (for requirements) for a county of our size," she added. Lorang said she has done contractual and advising work. She cited one contract she prepared for the county under Peterson's direction and another under Dahl's, although she declined to give specific information due to a concern about violating client-attorney privilege. She said she also has advised county officials in Dahl's absence. Peterson said she did have Lorang work on one contract, which she then re-worked. She said she is not aware of any work Lorang has done in advising the commissioners or department heads, or in handling labor negotiations or grievance issues. She estimated that Lorang could not have spent more than one-half of 1 percent of her 2½ years at Hill County handling civil issues. Peterson said she believes that, at this stage of her career, Lorang is not ready for the job. "I don't know how she thinks she can even hold a candle with Gina's experience," Peterson said.

 

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