Gallatin County District judges
Gallatin County District judges John Brown, from left, Standing Master Magdalena "Mitzi" Bowen, Holly Brown, and Mike Salvagni pose for a photo recently.

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Although the number of divorces in Gallatin County has not increased significantly in the past decade, the complexity of the cases and the time they take to litigate has, District Court judges say.

With a floundering economy, many people going through divorce and child-custody claims cannot afford attorneys, the county's three District Court judges said recently.

Although he hasn't done a statistical analysis, Judge John Brown said he believes the recession has resulted in more than half the recent divorce and child-custody cases in Gallatin County being filed without the help of lawyers.

But most people are also not familiar with the intricacies of Montana's laws, so judges wind up spending more time explaining and mediating cases.

That situation is further complicated by the fact that Gallatin County's courts are busy, so busy, in fact, that the nine-member Montana District Court Council last year determined the county needed at least one more judge to keep up with the caseload, Gallatin County Judge Mike Salvagni said. But that has yet to happen.

Enter Magdalena "Mitzi" Bowen.

Bowen, a Bozeman attorney, is the District Court's newest employee. As the court's standing master, she has been hired to hear and rule on family law cases.

"The objective here is to move these cases faster through the system," Salvagni said.

A 20-year veteran of family law, Bowen heard her first cases in her hearing room at the Law and Justice Center this month.

Family law "seems to be my niche and what I like to do," she said. "It's all problem solving."

All couples going through a divorce are required in Gallatin County to participate in mediation and, if there are children involved, to take parenting classes.

"We're trying to get these parents to come to some sort of agreement about their children," Salvagni said. "We would prefer that parents make decisions about their children rather than a stranger."

And to do so as painlessly and quickly as possible, the judges said.

As an attorney, about 90 percent of her cases were settled through mediation, Bowen said. And, as a parent of two, she prefers to help people reach some sort of mutual agreement rather than ruling for them.

"Because once a decision has been made, the parties can move forward," Bowen agreed.

Bowen was one of 22 people who applied for the standing master job.

Salvagni said the "significant thing" working on her behalf was her experience.

"It's really important that the standing master has a comprehensive and compassionate understanding of these cases and what these people are going through," he said. "Not only do they have conflict in their lives, they have limited understanding" of the legal process.

"Her knowledge and understanding will help them get through it in a more orderly and expeditious fashion," he added.

Jodi Hausen can be reached at or 582-2630. Read her blog at or follow her on Twitter @bozemancrime.

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