On Monday, February 12, 2024, Daily Montanan reported that a judicial misconduct complaint and a motion to disqualify Judge Deborah Kim Christopher from a case were both filed against her in response to recent events. Judge Christopher, who has served as a judge in Lake County since 2000, has found herself facing mounting allegations of poor judgments in her rulings.

The issues began in a high-conflict child custody case from September 2023 where Judge Christopher abruptly ordered that a five-year-old child be removed from his mother’s custody and placed with his father instead, despite neither parent requesting the change. The Montana Supreme Court later deemed this ruling a “gross injustice” and removed Judge Christopher from the case, returning the child to his mother.

After this case, more concerns arose about Judge Christopher’s conduct. A state agency filed a motion to disqualify her from another case, alleging she issued a biased order, spoke to a defendant without his lawyer present twice, and informed him of a planned ruling in advance. The Montana Supreme Court is currently reviewing these allegations.

Additionally, one of the lawyers representing the mother in the September child custody case, Lance Jasper, confirmed he filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Judge Christopher with the Judicial Standards Commission. However, due to confidentiality rules, he did not disclose the complaint’s contents.

Separately, Judge Christopher acknowledged receiving a 15-day notice of another complaint against her from the Judicial Standards Commission related to alleged failure to perform duties and too many unjustified absences. The Department of Public Health and Human Services has also sought to disqualify Judge Christopher in a different case, citing issues such as untimely rulings and ex parte communications.

Recent videos from Judge Christopher’s Zoom court proceedings have also raised ethical concerns. In one recording after the September hearing concluded, Judge Christopher called the mother a “bitch” and described the grandmother as “poison” to colleagues. Additionally, court staff discussions referenced the case as better than TV shows and discussed confidential mediation information.

Legal experts have noted judges must remain impartial and avoid derogatory language. They also cannot share private settlement details or treat judicial proceedings casually. While recognizing personal stresses of the job, experts question if Judge Christopher can fairly preside over cases anymore given the pattern of issues. Lawyers for the mother have referred their findings to law enforcement for potential criminal investigations as well.

Going forward, Judge Christopher will need to respond to these various complaints and motions. However, she maintains that in 23 years, this child custody case has been the most difficult. With an election coming up, it remains uncertain if Judge Christopher will continue serving as a judge in Lake County. For now, the Montana judiciary continues grappling with how to address the mounting allegations surrounding her conduct on the bench.

 

 

Source: Daily Montanan