Belgrade City Court Judge Andrew Breuner is a candidate for Gallatin County District Court judge.

For the second time in just over a year, Belgrade City Judge Andrew Breuner has applied to become a Gallatin County District Court judge.

Breuner, who has presided over the City Court since 2015, is one of four candidates for the district court judge position recently approved by the Legislature. Gallatin County, the 18th Judicial District, now has three district court judges who oversee all civil and felony criminal cases filed in the county. The courts also have a standing master who handles family law cases. The last new district court judge position was added in 2007, when the county had a population of roughly 27,000 fewer people than it now does.

The other candidates for the new position are Audrey Schultz Cromwell, a managing partner at Cromwell Law and a Judge Pro Tempore in Bozeman Municipal Court and Gallatin County Justice Court; Martin Lambert, Gallatin County attorney for more than 20 years; and Benjamin Refling, who works for the Office of the State Public Defender.

Breuner and Cromwell both applied last year to succeed retiring District Judge Holly Brown. Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Peter Ohman to the position.

In addition to overseeing Belgrade City Court, Breuner teaches a class on criminal law and procedure at Montana State University as an adjunct professor. He has experience in private practice in Bozeman and California.

“I love the Belgrade community, have a terrific court staff, and am fully committed to serving Belgrade. So I would not be applying for district court judge unless I believed I was the best person for the job,” Breuner said

When he applied for the district court position in 2020, he told the Belgrade News he looks forward to his job every day but was interested in pursuing the opportunity at the district court because of the variety and increased complexity of cases he would handle there.

“Most sitting judges think about being a judge at a higher level,” Breuner said then. “I really feel blessed to have this job in Belgrade, but judicial vacancies don’t come along too often.”

Cromwell is a managing partner at Cromwell Law, PLLC, and has been since 2011, according to her application. She’s served as a fill-in judge in Gallatin County Justice Court since 2014 and began doing so in Bozeman Municipal Court this year. She is a co-director and clinical supervisor of an MSU student legal services program.

“I believe everyone deserves a fair shot at justice,” she said. “As a judge, I can provide that for the community … serving and supporting the community is extremely important to me as a lawyer, a parent, a Montanan.”

Lambert has served as the Gallatin County attorney since 1997 and has worked in the county attorney’s office since 1983. He prosecuted Gov. Greg Gianforte’s 2017 charge for assaulting a reporter.

He also serves as the director of the Montana County Attorneys Association.

“A district court judge is subject to great public scrutiny … a good judge will be at peace with the fact that only rarely can he or she make a public reply to such criticism, and such a judge provides a valuable service to his or her community and the legal profession,” Lambert said in his application. “I think I’m in a good place in my career to provide such a service to the citizens of Gallatin County and the State of Montana.”

Refling has worked for the Office of the State Public Defender since 2017 as an assistant public defender, representing clients in both criminal and civil matters. Prior to that, he served as an associate attorney and legal assistant at Refling Hodges Law Group in Bozeman.

“In late 2016, I made a conscientious choice to leave private practice and return to public service and to the principles of fairness and justice that had motivated me to become an attorney in the first place,” Refling said in his application for the position. “ … I want to be Gallatin County’s next district court judge because I understand the challenges that face a district judge and how to tackle them.”

The governor’s office is accepting public comment on the four nominees until 5 p.m. on Nov. 13. The governor will ultimately appoint one of the four nominees by Dec. 13, and the chosen judge will be sworn in and begin serving on or before Jan. 3, 2022.

This new system — the governor’s direct appointment — is a departure from the way district court judges have been chosen for the past 50 years.

Previously, district court judge candidates have been selected by the Judicial Nomination Commission, a seven-person commission made up of four people who are not judges or attorneys appointed to the commission by the governor, two attorneys appointed by the Montana Supreme Court and one district court judge elected by the state district court judges. The governor would have final say over judges, who would later be confirmed by the Montana state Senate during the next legislative session.

But the Judicial Nomination Commission was dissolved when Gianforte signed SB 140 in March 2021. The bill gave any governors the power to fill vacant or new judicial seat themselves. Its constitutionality was challenged before the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the law is constitutional.

While Gianforte will appoint the judge, the nominee will still need to run in the general election in the fall of 2022 in order to retain the seat and could face challengers on the ballot then.

Belgrade News editor Diana Setterberg contributed to this report.