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Yellowstone County judge hears final case, looks ahead at "new c - KBZK.com | Continuous News | Bozeman, Montana

Yellowstone County judge hears final case, looks ahead at "new chapter"

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BILLINGS - Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg heard his last case Tuesday before hanging up his robe after 22 years on the bench.

Fagg estimated that he's presided over 25,000 cases, but one stands out in his mind.

The year was 1996 and the defendant Gino Gonzalez, who was 17 at the time.

"He killed a Kwik Way clerk and it was all recorded," said Fagg. "He had already gotten the money and all he had to do was leave. You see him pull the trigger and the safety is on. So you see him flip the safety and pull the trigger and shoot the clerk for no reason. So I sentenced him to life in prison and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done."

The victim had a family, one who would likely never make sense of the crime.

The Gonzalez case was one of the first major crimes to come through Fagg's courtroom, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Fagg said Tuesday during an interview with Q2 that he's had a passion for serving justice as long as he can remember.

"I guess because I was a middle child, and I was the one who settled disputes in our family," said Fagg. "I liked being a lawyer but when I saw a judge who frankly I didn't think was doing that good of a job. I was just a very young man, but I thought I'm gonna give it a shot."

Since he won that race, Fagg said he's fought to uphold the law and do right by the people of Yellowstone County. But now, he's eying the U.S. Senate, having formed an exploratory committee to decide whether to challenge incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

"I think I'm in a really unique place to know how to model policy to move our country in a better direction," said Fagg. "And second, I feel like I'm a really good negotiator, I'm trying to look for a win-win situation. I like to work with people from different backgrounds and I like to work with people from different parties."

As a Republican, Fagg said he'd push to lower the nation's debt and, with Montana in mind, push for alternatives to prison for drug users.

As he hung up his robe, Fagg said he may be done on the bench, but he hopes he's not done serving Montanans.

On Saturday, Fagg plans to announce whether he's running. If so, he would be the sixth Republican to enter next year's race against Tester..

The names of three candidates have been submitted to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to replace Fagg on the bench.

Jessica Fehr is an attorney and shareholder at Moulton Bellingham P.C. and former assistant U.S. attorney.

Donald Harris is a personal injury lawyer who has served on the Montana Commission on Practice, a state judicial board.

And Joseph Raffiani is a criminal defense attorney who is also on the SD2 school board.

Some of Fagg's 1,100 active cases are being reassigned to other judges and standing masters, but he said many of his cases will go to his replacement.

Bullock has until Nov. 1 to appoint Fagg's successor. 

Fagg said he also plans on opening his own law firm.

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