Appointments/Elections

Shane Vannatta Joins District Court in Missoula, Montana

February 22, 2019 (Missoulian)

By Seaborn Larson
Shane Vannatta’s swearing in as the newest Fourth Judicial District Judge on Friday made history in more ways than one. He will be the first to hold the newly-created seat on the District Judge bench. He will be the state’s 49th active judge, the highest number in Montana history. And he’s also the first openly gay judge to serve in the state.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock made the appointment on February 5, and Vannatta got the nod of approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Judge Shane Vannatta

Shane Vannatta is dressed in a judicial robe by husband Jon Freeland and mother Karen at his swearing-in ceremony.

It was standing-room only in the Missoula courtroom for those who came to see the Fourth Judicial District’s newest judge sworn in on Friday. Newly-elected judges sat next to those retired, prosecutors next to criminal defense attorneys, law enforcement officers next to, perhaps, rougher-looking types.

Matt Cuffe, Vannatta’s former law partner and now a District Court judge in Lincoln County, swore him in. Vannatta’s husband and mother carried out the robe once worn by Justice of the Peace Michael Morris, who The New York Times Magazine once described as a beloved figure in the local judicial arena.

“This public office derives its authority from our Montana Constitution. Our Constitution derives its authority from the consent and support of the people, you,” he told the audience.

Vannatta, who took a run at replacing Judge Ed McLean in 2015, beamed with anticipation on Friday, as well as in an interview with the Missoulian shortly after his appointment. He spoke then about a great respect for the bench and for the judicial system’s many working parts.

It’s a hefty task ahead for someone whose position was created because a study found Missoula needed not one but 2.6 new judges due to growing caseloads.

Hard work was no stranger on the Vannatta family farm and ranch 10 miles outside of Bainville. One could say hard work is an ever-present force for Vannatta, who graduated from the University of Montana with high honors in political science and law school, once served as president of the State Bar in Montana and was until recently a shareholder at Worden Thane.

“It is an awesome responsibility,” he said. “You’re determining credibility, motive, all of these many things that are this human institution of the judiciary.”

Vannatta, 50, is coming to the bench with 18 years of experience as a substitute judge for the Missoula County Justice Court. While developing a career in civil law, he’s come to know the system of which he is now a part, as well as the realities for agencies strapped for resources to address a growing drug problem and an effort to address mental health needs in the community.

As the youngest judge in the district, he said he hopes to help foster innovative solutions to the community’s challenges. That means building on the work that’s already been done with initiatives and pilot programs, such as jail diversion efforts, pretrial services and electronic court filing.

“The ability to make a real difference in the lives of the people who come before you, to craft decisions in a way that can help the situation,” Vannatta said when asked what he was looking forward to about the judge position. “There are conditions you can place in your pretrial conditions or sentencing that can move that person toward wellness and re-integration to society, rather than locking them away.”

The appointment of Montana’s first openly gay judge is historic, although Vannatta does not like to push that point.

“I hope people know me as a good attorney who happens to be gay, or a good judge who happens to be gay, and not the gay judge,” he said. “One thing that’s nice is that sexual orientation has, to a great degree, normalized. People would be surprised and probably bored to hear about my home life, because I do home life stuff.”

The matter was very much a non-issue Wednesday in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, tasked with vetting the governor’s appointment. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, was singularly concerned with Vannatta’s views on both the state and U.S. constitutions.

“The Constitution is the fundamental document, that we have all agreed to as a society, that governs our society,” Vannatta responded to the panel. “The statutes and regulations then flow from that Constitution, the highest law in the land. We swear an oath to that Constitution. It’s not to a person, it’s not to a thing, it’s to the language and the agreement that’s in that Constitution.”

Vannatta will begin his term as a public servant next week. He will take the bench for the first time in March.