HELENA — Every year, thousands of legal filings come through Lewis and Clark County Justice Court. Starting in January, there will be two judges instead of one to handle that caseload.
In November, Lewis and Clark County voters selected Mark Piskolich to serve as the county’s second justice of the peace. Since then, he’s been preparing for the new role – working with current justice of the peace Mike Swingley and Helena city judge Anne Peterson, and going through judicial training from the Montana Court Administrator’s Office.
Piskolich, a former federal and state probation officer, says he’s feeling ready for the new responsibility.
“I wouldn’t say comfortable; I would say confidently uncomfortable,” he said. “I think we’re going to be good. Judge Peterson’s been a great help, Judge Swingley’s a great help, I’ve been in the court system for all of my career, really. It’s a new role, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it – but right now, I’m just kind of hanging on.”
A justice of the peace supervises initial court appearances for all people charged with felonies – including setting their bonds – before their cases are transferred to district court. They also have full jurisdiction on all misdemeanor criminal charges in unincorporated areas of Lewis and Clark County. Justice Court also handles civil court trials dealing with amounts up to $12,000 and small claims cases for up to $7,000, as well as issuing orders of protection and search warrants.
Swingley says, since taking office in 2011, he’s been concerned about the growing load on his court – particularly due to a growth in drug- and alcohol-related cases. He estimates he handled 60,000 legal filings in his first nine years on the bench.
“The last few years, I’ve been handling as many cases by myself as both JPs in Cascade County together,” he said.
In 2018, the county commission agreed to create and fund a second justice court, starting in 2021. Swingley said that will have a huge effect on how he’s able to treat cases.
“The big disadvantage to the citizens of Lewis and Clark County is that I have so many cases that, at some point, I can’t spend as much time, especially on the civil and small claims cases, as I need to to make really good decisions,” he said. “We really needed another judge in this county.”
Once Piskolich is officially sworn in, the court’s computer system will automatically assign half of the cases to each judge. People seeking orders of protection will be able to file with either one. The judges will rotate responsibility for initial appearances.
Piskolich will soon have a new courtroom of his own. In January, Helena Municipal Court is set to move from its current location in the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse to the Law and Justice Center on Fuller Avenue. The second justice court is set to take over that space.
Both Piskolich and Swingley say they’re looking forward to starting the new court.
“I’ve known Mark for many years, and he’ll be a good public servant,” said Swingley. “He’ll do a good job as justice of the peace.”
“I appreciate the confidence of the voters of Lewis and Clark County, and I’ll do my best to make them proud, make sure that their choice was justified and give them a good solid court,” Piskolich said.
A newly elected judge has to pass a certification test before taking the bench. Piskolich says he hopes to complete his training and take the test in the next few weeks.