Arthur Behar says serendipity brought him and his wife Ellen to Ennis, but it’s a commitment to fairness that spurs him on in his new part-time job as Ennis town judge.
The Behars stayed for five days in Ennis three years ago when a planned trip to Glacier National Park had to be cancelled when the Going to the Sun Road was closed.
The couple fell in love with the community and its people and bought 20 acres near Cameron.
Last September when the town of Ennis started advertising for a new judge, Ellen Behar thought it sounded perfect for her husband.
Arthur wasn’t so sure. He had spent 30 years as an attorney and didn’t know if he had the “temperament” to be a judge. But he got the job and took over for former Ennis judge Kathleen Humphrey in December.
Being a judge is completely different from being a lawyer, Behar said.
“In 30 years I never had to be fair to the other side. I tried to pummel them as they tried to pummel me,” he said. “Being a judge takes more ears than mouth.”
It means putting away that adversarial attitude and “putting my fairness hat on.”
“To me it’s the difference between actually playing baseball and being the ump behind the plate,” Behar said. “It’s much harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Behar got into law kind of the way he wound up in Ennis. He was in the military and a friend told him since he liked to argue he ought to get paid for it.
After the service, he was staying with his sister in Ventura, Calif. waiting for his vehicle to arrive from where he was stationed in Hawaii, when she recommended he walk up the street to California State University – Northridge and see about going to college.
He took her advice and enrolled in the Whittier Law School.
Behar is originally from Rockway Beach, N.Y. He grew up in a tough neighborhood and learned quickly how to talk his way out of trouble.
“I was one of the smallest kids from one of the toughest neighborhoods,” Behar said. “I tried to use my words before the fists started to fly.”
He used his natural ability with make his point verbally as a lawyer. His first job after he passed the bar was with the State Bar of California prosecuting attorneys on ethics violations. After that he went to work as a defense lawyer. Most of his time was working on complex civil cases, but he also devoted about 10 percent of his time defending mentally ill veterans. In those cases he worked to get veterans out of state and county systems and into the Veterans Administration system, Behar said.
As town judge, he sees himself playing a small but significant role in the judicial system. Many of the people who come before him, won’t ever come before another judge.
But that’s pretty typical for courts like the one in Ennis.
“We’re the low rung of the judicial ladder, but we see 90 percent of Montanans,” Behar said. “I have to present myself as the face of the Montana judicial system.”
The Ennis Court is a court of limited jurisdiction and a court of no record. This means there is no court reporter or voice recording of the proceedings. Behar sees a lot of misdemeanor cases. He may arraign a felony case, but then it typically gets sent to district court in Virginia City.
Still, the job is tough and he takes it very seriously. People who come before him can expect him to be fair, but not a pushover.
He expects people who make deals with him to keep their word. If they don’t do what they’ve agreed to, whether it’s staying out of the bars and attending counseling, they can expect to meet a firm response.
“If you’re not going to keep your word, I am going to keep my word,” Behar said.
Of all the people he sees, getting through to the kids is the toughest, he said. Most teens and young adults he sees don’t understand that the decisions they’re making are building up a criminal record that will eventually be impossible to get out from under.
“They don’t realize they’re building a foundation for some district court judge down the road to drop them in a deep dark hole,” Behar said.
One of the projects he is taking on is catching up on the backlog of cases at the Ennis court. He recently asked the town commission to allow him to work two extra days a month and they agreed.
Now Behar works every Monday and every other Thursday. Most of Thursday’s work is simply catching up on paperwork. Occasionally, he’ll hold a trial on one of the extra Thursdays, but not often.
The caseload through the Ennis court is increasing. Last year 300 cases came through the court. This year, Behar is on pace to hear nearly 500 cases. Most other courts with that kind of caseload work more than one day a week.
“I can’t do the job (working) one day a week, it’s physically impossible,” he said