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Voters will choose between three people this November to serve as the second full-time judge in the Bozeman Municipal Court.

The municipal court handles misdemeanor criminal charges, like some DUIs, and civil proceedings, like municipal infractions and orders of protection. The court has one full-time elected judge and one part-time appointed judge, but Bozeman’s growing population and a signed senate bill requiring elected judges to serve full-time have bumped up the number of full-time city court judges in Bozeman to two.

Election Day is Nov. 2.

The three candidates for the position all have experience both as lawyers and as the ones with the gavel.

Judge Colleen Herrington is the current part-time municipal court judge and has been for almost a decade; Sheryl Wambsgans, a private practice lawyer, fills in for Herrington and Judge Karl P. Seel when they’re out of town or unable to try a case; and Magdalena Bowen is the current district court standing master, handling confidential family law cases like adoption.

Seel will be up for election in 2023. The two judge positions are elected in staggered years, so there won’t be one year with a total judicial turnover in the municipal court.

Colleen Herrington

Herrington has been the part-time judge for almost a decade and said that the position has been ramping up hours from half-time to three-quarters time in recent years, so the legislative change that bumped it up to a full-time elected position wasn’t a major surprise.

“I really believe that my experience and the fact that I’ve been doing this job really makes me ready from day one,” Herrington said. “”When I started, I had this learning curve. But this time I wouldn’t because I would just be continuing my work … allowing me to work full-time will give me the ability to do more for this community.”

In 2017, Herrington, an officer in the Montana National Guard, spearheaded the establishment of the Bozeman Veteran Eligible Treatment Services court.

“The Veterans Eligible Treatment Services Court does serve veterans that have gotten involved in the criminal justice system, and we’re helping them to try to get out of it,” Herrington said.

If she’s elected, Herringon said she’d like to work toward establishing other specialty courts, like a DUI court, especially after seeing the success of the Veterans Eligible Treatment Services Court.

Before being appointed to the municipal court in 2012, Herrington was a public defender and, after that, a private practice attorney with a focus on bankruptcy and tax law. She has a master’s degree in accounting from Montana State University, a law degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore and an undergraduate degree in accounting and management from Mercer University in Georgia.

Magdalena Bowen

Bowen has been serving as the standing master in Gallatin County since 2010. She said she’s gunning for the municipal court judge position because she wants to help people having their first interactions with the court system understand what’s happening, help them feel listened to and, hopefully, keep them out of courtrooms in the future.

“I like for people to know what it is we’re doing and why I’ve decided things the way that I have,” Bowen said. “My judicial philosophy is that everyone is an important part of the process.”

Bowen said her experience serving as standing master, as well as prior experience as a public defender, will help her apply the law in a way that is fair and considerate while still holding accountable those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty to a crime without shaming them.

“I can use the skills that I have to be immediately responsive and impactful to the community,” Bowen said. “This is a place I can be open to the community’s needs we hear.”

While municipal court deals with lower-level crimes and infractions, Bowen said those are a big deal for people facing misdemeanor allegations for the first time in their life. She said she’d use the court to help people keep those first or early interactions with the justice system to be the only interactions.

“My job is not to shame (defendants),” she said. “My job is to hold you accountable and to encourage you to do better.”

Before becoming standing master in 2010, Bowen practiced as both a public defender and private attorney doing criminal and civil law. Raised in Bozeman, she graduated from Montana State University and got her law degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Sheryl Wambsgans

Wambsgans has been practicing law since 2012 in Gallatin County and surrounding areas and, for the past several years, has filled in on the bench in municipal court when the other judges are unavailable or when there’s a conflict of interest.

For the first roughly three years of her career, her cases were “almost exclusively” in Bozeman municipal court.

“I’ve had that experience on the bench in that court and also on the other side,” she said. “I’ve got relationships with the attorneys in the community that are specifically in that courtroom … so I think that puts me in a unique position to run for this.”

Wambsgans is a co-founder and co-owner of Bridger Law, a private law firm with specialties in family law, misdemeanor DUI defense, bankruptcy and mediation. She said she’s focused her career on being a judge someday and, with her experience in municipal court, feels that she’s ready to do so now.

“I do believe integrity is the keystone of our judicial system,” she said. “Being able to stand your ground but have compassion for what the people in front of you are going through.”

Wambsgans is a substitute judge in the court about once a month, she said. She sees trials all the way through when she starts them.

“I try to be as available as I can when they need it, because I love doing it,” she said.

Wambsgans, who graduated from high school in Bozeman, acquired her law degree from the University of Denver-Sturm. She’s a trained mediator and a member of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

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

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