When I was appointed to the Montana Supreme Court in 1993, Jean Turnage was the chief justice. As the “newby,” I was at once terrified of now being a part of the body that I had revered—and cursed—for the previous 20 years as a lawyer. But I was determined to contribute to the court as an equal and to make my voice known.

When I met Chief Justice Turnage, he was most gracious and welcoming. We came from opposite political parties in our former lives, but I had always respected him as the public face of the court. In my first few weeks and months on the court, I learned that my impressions before becoming a member of the court were accurate.

The chief was fair, accommodating and, yet, firm in his own views on the cases and the applicable law. He was willing to listen to an opposing argument, but quick to point out when he thought you were wrong. As for me, the idealist intent on change, he was kind and tolerant, but never hesitated to tell me if I was off base. He was usually the cooler head among the hotter.

But in the really big cases, many of which changed the social and legal fabric of Montana, Turnage was willing to be one of the leaders in the advancement of the law. If you could make a good argument; if you could show him why a new direction was warranted, you could generally count on the chief to join the opinion. And, for that, I always look on Jean Turnage, not only as a colleague, but as a friend. I respected him immensely, even if, as he would say himself, we always didn’t agree.

Looking back, now, in my own retirement, I have come to realize that Jean Turnage was a member of a vanishing breed. Most certainly, Turnage was a politician. He came to the court from the legislature. After having had to work with the numerous individuals in that body, I suspect that his working with just six other justices was pretty much a piece of cake.

He presided over conferences on hotly contested cases where emotions and tempers boiled over—mine included—but he never lost his cool. We always got through the discussion, egos aside, and the decisions were made and the opinions were written.

Jean Turnage made the court work. He was a good lawyer; he was a good judge; and most of all, he was a good statesman. And that’s why Jean Turnage was one of a vanishing breed.

His love and commitment was to the law—not to a political ideology. He swore to uphold the Constitution—and he was true to that oath. He believed in justice and fairness. And he was willing to follow those paths, despite times when I knew he had his personal reservations.

The Montana Supreme Court has always been fortunate to be led by excellent chief justices. I served under three. I’ll always look back on Jean Turnage, though, not just because he was the chief when I was sworn in, but because he was my friend, and perhaps, one of the last of a breed. One of the “greatest generation"; a veteran; a good lawyer; a good judge; a leader who could accommodate the philosophies of different ethnicities, generations and two other branches of government.

My hat is off to Jean Turnage. His passing is Montana’s loss. I don’t know if we’ll see the likes of him again. And that is the really sad part.

Government needs more public officials like Jean Turnage. Government needs fewer hotheads and political ideologues. Government needs more statesmen.

Government needs more Jean Turnages.

You set a good example, Jean. Sleep well; you done good.

Jim Nelson of Helena is a retired Montana Supreme Court justice. 

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