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By Alex Beal and Landee Holloway
Missoula County Justices of the Peace 

Justice Court becomes court of record in 2020

The County Voice

 

December 12, 2019



For those of you who live in and around Seeley Lake, if you have to go to court, it will probably be Missoula County Justice Court. It’s where traffic tickets and criminal charges from the Sheriff’s Office, the Motor Carrier Service, Montana Highway Patrol, Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Animal Control are filed. It’s also where smaller civil suits are filed.

Admittedly, none of that is particularly fun. Justice Court is taking a step that (among other things) should cut down on the most painful court visits.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, Missoula County Justice Court will be a court of record. This means everything happening in the courtroom will be electronically recorded. Up until now, that was not the case and there was no official “record” of what happened in the courtroom beyond the judge’s written notes.

Everyone has the right to appeal their case and the job of the appellate judge is to ensure the first judge did things correctly. Before becoming a court of record, there was no way to know if the first judge did things right, so if there was an appeal, the whole process started over. It was like the first trial never happened, requiring everyone to come back to court and testify again.

We think everyone would agree that the worst visits to court are the ones where you have to testify at a trial. The process is unpleasant, whether you are testifying as the victim of a crime or because of a money dispute. As a court of record, the days of testifying twice about the same event will be over. Instead of making people relive the events yet again, an appeals court will listen to the recorded voices at the trial and determine if the process was fair and appropriate.

This process of recording hearings also means there will be more transparency and accountability. Like most courts, Justice Court now issues written sentencing orders in criminal cases so defendants know the list of things they can and cannot do. While we try our best to write down every detail that was said aloud, mistakes can be made. In Montana, if what the judge said aloud and wrote down do not match, what was said aloud is the actual order. A recording ensures clarity and accuracy for everyone.

The oral record will also be available for members of the media, which should facilitate accurate reporting of events in Justice Court for hearings a reporter is unable to attend.

The goal of Justice Court is to provide a simple, fair and efficient outcome to legal issues and to ensure there is accountability for all and the decision of the court is followed. As your justices of the peace, we’re thankful to the county commissioners for passing a resolution to convert Justice Court to a court of record and for supplying the support and funding to make it happen.

 

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