Probe criticizes Montana justice for absences, tardiness

July 17, 2018 - 1:06 pm

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — An investigation into the operation of one of Missoula County's justice courts found the judge was frequently late for work or absent and had employees walk her dog and put court fees in an unlocked box on her back porch.

Justice of the Peace Marie Andersen declined to comment Monday on the report requested by county officials after complaints about high turnover on Andersen's staff, The Missoulian reports . She is seeking re-election in November.

The report by an outside investigator found Andersen kept track of employee mistakes and offered no training to new hires but then forbid them from asking co-workers for help.

Andersen's rigid policies and practices resulted in a situation where "employees are confused, do not receive thorough training, are fearful of retaliation and concerned about serving the public well," said an executive summary of the report compiled by consultant Michele Puiggari.

The investigator found employees were required to carry out the judge's recycling program, including washing and removing labels from bottles, saving cardboard, saving food for composting and re-using paper — including some that had confidential information about defendants on the other side.

The summary of Puiggari's report indicates Andersen is frequently and unexpectedly absent from or late to work, causing clerks and managers to have to reschedule her court calendar.

"The judge may be unexpectedly absent on days that citizens arrive to pay fines or attend court to eliminate arrest warrants, which is only scheduled for one time per month," the report said. "If the judge is absent, citizens return home with a warrant still out for their possible arrest."

Andersen does not allow her staff to interact with the other justice of the peace, the investigation found, and a court manager who received help from the other justice was fired a week later, the report said.

Andersen previously worked as an assistant Municipal Court judge from 2006 until she was removed in 2012. Andersen challenged the decision. In court filings, the city indicated Andersen slept on the job and did not know how to use the court's electronic case database, among other shortcomings.

Last month, Andersen dismissed entirely a domestic abuse case against a man after she said prosecutors didn't give her enough notice the man planned to plead guilty rather than go to trial. She refused to accept his guilty plea.

Andersen complained that if she had been given more notice she could have scheduled other cases, prosecutors said.

The man eventually pleaded guilty in district court.

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Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com

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