municipal judge candidates

From left: Magdalena C. Bowen, Sheryl Wambsgans, and J. Colleen Herrington, candidates for the new Bozeman Municipal Court judge position, speak during a city candidate forum held by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce at the Riverside Country Club on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

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When Bozeman voters open their election ballots, which went into the mail this week, they’ll see the names of three women running for Bozeman’s second full-time municipal judge position.

The Bozeman municipal court handles some misdemeanor charges, like traffic infractions and some DUIs. The court now has one full-time judge, Judge Karl P. Seel, and one three-quarter time judge who is running for the full-time position. Seel will be up for election again in 2023.

But Bozeman’s growing population has increased the number of cases landing in the city court, making a second full-time judge necessary. A bill signed by the governor in April requires elected judges to serve full-time.

Magdalena C. Bowen

Magdalena C. Bowen, a candidate for the new Bozeman Municipal Court judge position, speaks during a city candidate forum held by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce at the Riverside Country Club on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

Magdalena Bowen now serves as the standing master in Gallatin County district court, adjudicating mostly confidential family law cases. Colleen Herrington is the current part-time municipal judge in Bozeman’s municipal court. And Sheryl Wambsgans co-founded a private law firm and fills in for Judges Seel and Herrington when they’re unable to try a case in the municipal courtroom.

All three have been participating in community forums sponsored by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce and MontPIRG, often alongside Bozeman City Commission candidates.

They’ve marched in parades, left door hangers or done outreach at Montana State University home games in the hopes of getting the message out to voters. And, come Nov. 2, they’ll know who has been elected to serve as the second Bozeman municipal court judge.

Bowen has a three-pillar platform, she said: breaking down barriers to legal access, impartial application of the law and prioritizing community safety. She has worked as the standing master in district court since 2010 and, before that, practice as both a public defender and private attorney with experience in civil and criminal law. Bowen was raised in Bozeman and graduated from Montana State University. She earned her law degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“I have the energy, and I have the legal expertise of almost 30 years, and I have the life experience that I can bring to this job to make it the very best for the city of Bozeman,” she said.

Campaigning and connecting with voters has given Bowen the opportunity to learn more about what sorts of issues people want to see addressed in the judiciary. Increasing access to the legal system, especially for those who don’t know how to use computers or smartphones to do so, is one of the things people told her is important to them.

“There’s a real divide between people who are accessing information by technology and people who are doing it what I would call the traditional or old way, by paper, phone and mail,” she said. “Legal access is important for every group we have.”

Herrington has been the part-time judge for Bozeman municipal court for almost a decade. An officer in the Montana National Guard, Herrington established the Bozeman Veteran Eligible Treatment Services court, a court specifically aimed at helping veterans untangle from the justice system and re-integrate into the community. Fifteen veterans have graduated from the court since it was established in 2017.

J. Colleen Herrington

J. Colleen Herrington, a candidate for the new Bozeman Municipal Court judge position, speaks during a city candidate forum held by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce at the Riverside Country Club on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

If elected, Herrington wants to start a similar court to adjudicate DUIs and help people get treatment for alcohol abuse problems.

“I have proven my ability to be fair and impartial and honest over the past almost 10 years as judge. I want to continue to prove that to the community, to continue to serve the community,” Herrington said. “I have always tried to be as honest and truthful as possible in this job within the bounds of the law. I take each case individually in front of me, I hear the facts and apply the law as best as I can.”

Herrington said something that has been important for her throughout the community forums is maintaining an independent voice. In Montana, judges are nonpartisan positions.

“You want an independent judge that’s willing to be nonpartisan, that’s willing to be open and truthful and honest,” Herrington said. “I want to stay as independent as possible and as neutral as possible.”

Before being appointed to municipal court in 2012, Herrington was a public defender and private practice attorney with a focus on tax law and bankruptcy. She got her law degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore and also has a master’s degree in accounting from MSU.

Wambsgans co-founded and co-owns Bridger Law, a private law firm that specializes in family law, misdemeanor DUI defense, bankruptcy and mediation. She graduated from Bozeman High School, got her law degree from the University of Denver-Sturm and began practicing in Bozeman in 2012. For the past several years, she’s also filled in on the municipal court bench when the other judges are unavailable.

Sheryl Wambsgans

Sheryl Wambsgans, a candidate for the new Bozeman Municipal Court judge position, speaks during a city candidate forum held by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce at the Riverside Country Club on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

In talking to potential voters, Wambsgans said she’s found herself emphasizing one thing: her ability to engage everyone in the courtroom, from the defendants to jurors to attorneys, in meaningful participation.

The three guiding principles for Wambsgans are integrity, compassion and commitment, she said.

“Integrity is the keystone, I believe, of my campaign. I believe it’s of the utmost importance for judicial candidates. Compassion, that’s meeting people where they’re at in the courtroom. (Municipal court) is often times the first time that people are engaging with the justice system,” she said.

And commitment, she said, means commitment to the bench, the oath that judges take, and to the Bozeman community.

“Really, I think this is our opportunity to help our community in the areas that they need it the most, our most vulnerable populations,” Wambsgans said. “I hope to be able to represent Bozeman and really be able to engage with that process of helping people when they need it the most.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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