SUBLETTE COUNTY – Sometimes it seems like Sam Bixler shows up everywhere – serving on his homeowner association’s water district board, writing grant applications, meeting with others interested in countywide broadband and representing the Town of Marbleton in many different ways as a consultant.
“A lot of what I do is communication and relationship building,” he said. “I represent Marbleton … and make sure their needs are included to give decision-makers that perspective.”
Now he has a new engagement – as municipal court judge for the towns of LaBarge and Marbleton. He was appointed by LaBarge Mayor Larry Stepp and sworn in two weeks ago and then on Dec. 11, appointed by Marbleton Mayor Jim Robinson, approved by the council and sworn in on the spot by town attorney Thayne Peterson.
There wasn’t even enough notice to take a photo – but Bixler is fine with that.
“That’s the Marbleton ethos,” he said. “The ‘let’s get er done’ attitude is great.”
He emphasizes he undertook the challenge because he feels strongly about the small town.
“I am very loyal to Marbleton. I love the town; I love the community. Number one, it starts with the leadership there because the government tries to stay out of the way of its businesses and people’s lives.”
Bixler enjoys the life he’s put together of building relationships, networking – and learning.
“The amount of learning” needed to consider replacing Judge Michael Lamp was a major draw – especially after learning Wyoming is one of six states where municipal judges do not need a law degree.
“I love learning and taking on challenges and projects where I’ve had no background,” Bixler said. “And I’ll continue to learn even more.”
He took classes at the National Judicial College and shadowed Judge Lamp for five months. The judge, who lives in Kemmerer, announced his pending retirement a year ago after 24 years in Marbleton and 28 years in LaBarge so the councils could find a replacement. Bixler slowly gathered his resolve and with his family’s support and enthusiasm, stepped up.
“Judge Lamp was very gracious with his time and will continue to mentor me,” he said. “These will all be small misdemeanors. … My duty will be to make a judgment on the evidence that is presented.”
That might be animal-at-large tickets from Marbleton or traffic tickets from LaBarge police – “but we live in a democracy and everyone has the right to confront their accuser. The judiciary is very important.”
Yes, that means people rise when he enters the courtroom, wearing a robe.
“But no powdered wig,” Bixler added.
One controversial topic the two discussed is if Bixler would perform marriages, with Pinedale Municipal Judge Ruth Neely challenging a gay marriage issue versus her religious beliefs at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Judge Lamp recommended that I don’t marry anyone, period, no matter what side they’re on or what agenda they have,” Bixler stated. “It would be fun, though, to marry people.”
Bixler moved to Sublette County with wife Heather and daughter Izzy, 7, as a Young Turk seeking economic development projects almost seven years ago. He grew up in really big cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston – and spent one summer working in the Black Hills, his first taste of western mountains.
From there he moved to Bozeman and a decade later went east to Colstrip, Montana. Here, Bixler and his family settled in Boulder and after several economic development jobs, decided to become his own boss. He worked for a time for both Big Piney and Marbleton and now solely for the Town of Marbleton as an independent consultant.
“It allows me the freedom to have other clients and projects,” he said. “I’ve done economic impact studies for private organizations, helped develop economic projects, helped write grants. Just a lot of one-off projects with a lot of variety.”
With energy booms and busts, Bixler sees opportunities for the small town of 1,100 and Sublette County at large and works diligently to achieve them. A big goal is reopening the BLM’s Burma Road off Highway 351 to energy traffic to help the southern end of the county. At the same time he cut back on his board seats to expand his horizons.
“For a lay judge, I’ve never seen so much advance work,” town attorney Thayne Peterson told the council on Dec. 11. Councilmember Mack Bradley asked about any conflicts of interest with his two roles.
“His thought is to carry on until there might be a potential conflict,” Robinson replied.
Peterson told the council: “If you decide to appoint Sam, I’ll be watching for that and warn you or any future councils.”
After administering Bixler’s oath as Marbleton’s municipal judge, Peterson cracked, “Congratulations, Judge – you just lost your first name.”