Missoula County Judge John Larson, long known for his work on behalf of young people and those with addictions, received the Karla M. Gray Equal Justice Award on Friday from the Montana Bar Association.

Larson shares the award, named for the former chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, with Judge Kurt Krueger of Butte.

"He's just been a leader in the access to justice community," Janice Doggett, the bar's equal justice coordinator, said of Larson. "He's done some amazing things. He's very creative and thoughtful about how best to make sure people get access to the justice system."

The state bar gave its highest honor, the William K. Jameson Award, to Montana Board of Crime Control member and former U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci of Billings. Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent shared the George L. Bousliman Professionalism Award with Ken Oster of Glasgow.

Larson and Krueger were nominated by the Montana Legal Services Association for the Equal Justice Award. The nomination letter from Legal Services Executive Director Alison Paul called Larson "a passionate advocate for the rights of abused children" with "a special commitment to Native American youth."

Larson started Missoula County's treatment court program and also helped establish Missoula's CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program, which enlists volunteers to work in the court system on behalf of abused and neglected children. Larson was named national CASA judge of the year in 2003.

"He's been a longtime advocate for children who are in the foster care system," said Ellen Bush, executive director of CASA of Montana. "He's been active in national organizations in speaking out for children who are in the system through no fault of their own."

Larson said that his priorities and those of Krueger dovetailed to the point that "one late night" some years back, he, Krueger and Gray - still on the Supreme Court at the time - found themselves testifying before a legislative committee on behalf of juvenile justice programs, without having coordinated their appearances.

"We've shared similar interests," he said. "All of the judges and the Supreme Court justices are doing yeoman work to make the system more accessible to people."

The Montana Bar Association's annual meeting was held Thursday and Friday in Kalispell. Outgoing bar president Cynthia Smith of Missoula and Joan Jonkel of Missoula, an outgoing member of the Law-Related Education Committee, were among those receiving distinguished service awards.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or on CopsAndCourts.com.


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