Four candidates are competing this year in
the nonpartisan race for a second Justice of the Peace in Flathead County.
Flathead native since 1943, Jerry O'Neil grew up in the retail lumber business.
He has been an independent paralegal and mediator in the valley for more than 20
years. As a charter member of the Montana Mediation Association, he says he has
mediated several cases for Judge Ortley's Justice Court Mediation Program and
hundreds of disputes elsewhere.
O'Neil is currently serving his second
term in the Montana Senate. He ran as a Republican, but he has also served as
secretary for the state Libertarian Party.
"During my time in the Senate,
I have been a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I have worked to
increase the public's access to our justice system, and a member of the Senate
Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee, where I have worked to protect
families," he said.
O'Neil said his 25 years spent trying to improve
access to the courts was one factor in his decision to run for Justice Court.
One of his goals is to reduce the number of people held in county
"Today, the majority of inmates in the county jail are awaiting
trial and have not been convicted of anything," he said. "I hope that if we can
make it easier for them to be bonded out prior to trial, it will relieve the
pressure on the county jail. Hopefully, we can accomplish this by providing the
accused the forms and help necessary for them to post property bonds, or have
others pledge assets for their release."
He also wants Justice Court to
be more open to the public.
"I believe the public needs to know they are
welcome to watch the trials and proceedings in Justice Court," he
While he agrees with the commissioners that making Justice Court a
court of record "will increase the level and quality of justice," O'Neil said he
wasn't completely sold on the proposal.
"I have some concern that we are
losing the informality our Justice Courts previously provided us," he
O'Neil supports alternative sentencing, including offering public
service in lieu of fines for traffic tickets.
"I am also supportive of
house arrest, which allows offenders the ability to be employed and support
their families, thus relieving the taxpayers the cost of providing welfare," he
By working "smarter," Justice Court can handle its growing workload
with the same level of funding it currently receives, O'Neil said. To streamline
the process, O'Neil said he would ask parties to submit briefs, memorandums or
letters prior to trial explaining their side of the case.
"I intend to
involve the litigants in the writing of the decisions," he said. "I also have
some friends who are very knowledgeable about the law, whom I believe will be
willing to give me advice on other ways to streamline the
O'Neil said he will quit his other jobs and devote a full-time
effort to Justice Court.
"I know I will never be able to fill the shoes
of some of the great Justices of the Peace from our past, such as Mary Riedel
and Orville Fredenberg, but I will attempt to maintain the honor of the
position," he said.
-- end --
... Aaron Biterman
Americans for Limited