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Helena attorney Abbott grateful for appointment as district judge

Posted at 4:30 PM, Nov 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-18 18:30:41-05

The attorney selected as the next district judge for Lewis and Clark and Broadwater Counties says he’s grateful for the opportunity and ready to get to work.

Chris Abbott, an assistant attorney general with the Montana Department of Justice, will fill an open judge’s seat for the First Judicial District. Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to replace Judge James Reynolds, who retired last month.

“Judge Reynolds was the first judge in this particular department and really has built up that court quite a bit, so it’s very big shoes to fill – and also very humbling,” said Abbott.

Abbott spent about 10 years as an assistant public defender with the Office of the State Public Defender. Since 2017, he has worked for the DOJ’s Agency Legal Services Bureau, where he represented state agencies on a number of legal issues. He worked on cases like Montana’s recently settled lawsuit against large tobacco companies and challenges to executive orders and directives.

Abbott says he first became interested in becoming a judge while working as a public defender.

“Just seeing how much influence judges have on the community and how important it is to have good people in those jobs – that’s when I first started thinking about seeking a judgeship,” he said.

He applied to fill a vacancy in 2015, when Judge Jeffrey Sherlock retired, but was not selected. He put his name forward again when Reynolds’ seat opened up.

Abbott is a longtime Helena resident, having grown up in the area and attended Capital High School. After earning an economics degree from the University of Puget Sound and a law degree from the University of Washington, he returned to Helena in 2007.

“I think that’s also been one of the things that has piqued my interest in this,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time and care about the community quite a bit.”

Abbott is set to be sworn in next week. He will take over most of Reynolds’ cases and one of his specific responsibilities – overseeing the district’s Drug Treatment Court, a program aimed at helping drug offenders get treatment and rehabilitate themselves. Judge Michael McMahon will take over the Family Treatment Court, which Reynolds also supervised.

Abbott says his time as an attorney has given him some ideas he’s interested in bringing to the court, but that he wants to start out by simply getting into the daily work of a judge.

“I think we’ve had four very excellent judges, and I don’t see a need to change things radically,” he said. “I want to continue the same work. I’m just interested in rolling up my sleeves and diving in to handling the types of everyday disputes that the courts handle.”

Abbott will have to be confirmed by the Montana Senate during next year’s legislative session. If he is approved, he will serve through the end of Reynolds’ term in January 2023.