Karen Townsend: 1st female Missoula District judge to retire

Judge Karen Townsend issued the final order of condemnation that turned ownership of Mountain Water Co. over to the City of Missoula on June 22, 2017. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula District Court judge who oversaw the city’s condemnation case against Mountain Water Co. and was the first woman elected to her position in Missoula County announced her retirement on Wednesday.

Karen Townsend, who served nine years on the bench, will leave her post this summer. She told Montana Supreme Court Justice Mike McGrath that she intends to step down Aug. 30.

She announced her plans in a statement issued by Missoula County.

“I have been blessed with wonderful fellow judges in the district and across the state as well as a staff that is second to none,” Townsend wrote in her letter to McGrath. “I will miss the work and the colleagues, but the time has come to pass the torch.”

Townsend presided over thousands of cases during her tenure, including the Jordan Johnson rape trial, in which he was found not guilty, and the city’s condemnation case against Mountain Water and the Carlyle Group.

That case saw hundreds of hours of legal testimony spread over the course of several years. Tasha Jones, an attorney with Boone Karlberg P.C., presented much of the case on the city’s behalf and described Townsend as an exceptional judge who logged an equally exceptional career.

“She attended law school and became a prosecuting trial lawyer at a time when female lawyers were very rare and their career paths in the law were quite challenging,” Jones told the Missoula Current. “Her service on the bench as a District Court judge has been just as exceptional, where she has consistently exercised calm, reasonable and balanced judgments.”

Townsend, a stalwart local volunteer, was first elected as District Court judge in 2010 and re-elected in 2016. Prior to her election, she spent much of her legal career with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, which included chief deputy county attorney from 1998 to 2006.

Townsend also serves as director of the Trial Advocacy Program at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, where she has coached the program’s competition team since 1998.

Jones said Townsend distinguished herself through skill and hard work, earning the respect of her peers, most of them men. She obtained national recognition as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and as Director of Training for the National Prosecutors Association.

“Judge Townsend is a role model for all professional women, and men would be well advised to emulate her skill and demeanor as well,” Jones said. “She did all this in a light pink suit with kindness and grace.”