POLSON – JoAnn McNeil pointed the ad in Overseas Weekly out to her husband, C.B., a pilot in the U.S. Army, while he was stationed in Germany.
It invited the tabloid’s mostly military readership to take the LSAT in Heidelberg.
“The first thing I had to figure out was what ‘LSAT’ stood for,” says McNeil, an Anaconda native whose college degree is in metallurgical engineering.
Once he learned it was the Law School Aptitude Test, he “borrowed” an Army airplane and flew to Heidelberg to take it.
“I’m not sure if they have yet figured out where I went,” he says.
“We’d been talking about my getting my master’s degree,” when he got out of the service, McNeil goes on. Becoming a lawyer – something he’d never even considered before – held one serious attraction for him once JoAnn had put the bug in his ear.
“It seemed like one of those professions where you can live where you want to,” McNeil says.
His LSATs went quite well, he got scholarship offers from law schools at the University of Colorado and University of Montana, and carefully considered the merits of each:
“Colorado was attractive for its elk hunting,” he says, “but the Pintlers, Georgetown Lake, Upper Rock Creek and the Big Hole won out.”
So it was to Missoula he came for law school, half a century ago.
When 76-year-old C.B. McNeil wrapped up his law career earlier this month, it was not as an attorney, but as a Montana District Court judge who had presided over almost 1,000 cases a year for the past 29 years in Lake and Sanders counties.
He’s had a significant effect on a lot of lives, McNeil allows.
“Nearly every case has a winner and a loser,” the newly retired judge says. “The only time a judge presides over something where everyone is happy is an adoption.”
The case totals, when McNeil looked them up in June, more than two months before his last day on the bench:
• 27,266 District Court cases.
• 5,312 of them criminal cases.
• 13,015 of them civil cases.
• 6,249 divorces.
• While those numbers make this last one seem puny, he presided over 223 jury trials that were tried to a verdict.
“And that’s a lot,” says McNeil, who won’t comment on a single one of any of the 27,266, not even to say which he found toughest, or most interesting.
“It would be totally inappropriate for me to comment, even as a retired judge,” he says. You never know when new circumstances could bring an old case back into the judicial system, he explains.
McNeil will, however, tell you that “Always, the most gut-wrenching are dependent/neglect cases” where a judge must decide whether to remove children from their parents or guardians.
“But a decision has to be made,” he says.
McNeil – a three-time cancer survivor – ran a tight ship in his courtroom, and never had a case overturned for failure to provide a speedy trial to a criminal defendant.
“In your tenure as a District Court judge, you became well-known (some might say notorious) for your no-nonsense approach, your decisiveness and your timeliness,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock wrote to McNeil after McNeil’s announcement in April that he would retire.
“The old saw that justice delayed is justice denied could not apply to your court,” continued Bullock, who will select McNeil’s replacement later this fall.
Of course it’s not McNeil’s court anymore – save for one thing.
When he stepped down on Sept. 3, and with 16 months left in his fifth six-year term, the Lake County commissioners announced they were naming the courtroom in his honor.
All who seek justice there now will do so in “The Honorable C.B. McNeil Courtroom.”
“Moistened my aging judicial eyes,” McNeil says.
The judge had no intention of stepping down with 16 months left in his fifth term, and no intention of running for a sixth in 2014.
“I’d be 83 when I got done,” McNeil says of another election cycle. “Are you kidding me?”
But his intention to complete this term took a twist when his judicial assistant for the past quarter of a century, Verna Shannon, told McNeil in April she was ready to retire.
“She’s taken care of me for 25 years,” McNeil says. “I thought, ‘How am I ever going to replace her?’ ”
Pretty soon, he says, his thought changed to, “You know, she has a really good idea.”
Shannon had told McNeil of her retirement plans more than two months before she intended to leave. The judge asked her if she would stay on a couple more beyond that, so he could give the Montana Judicial Nominating Commission time to conduct a search for potential replacements to forward to Bullock.
Then they would walk out the door together.
“It’s just time,” McNeil wrote in his letter of retirement to Montana Chief Justice Mike McGrath.
“And it was,” he says now.
Shannon and McNeil retired on the same day. Still at work, McNeil says, are Barbara Monaco, chief juvenile probation officer for Lake and Sanders counties, who has been in that position for the past 27 years, and his court reporter, Barbara Marshall, who was with McNeil for all 29 years.
“I was surrounded by some awfully fine people,” McNeil says.
C.B. McNeil says he didn’t know his given name was Charles Bertram McNeil until he was 15 years old, and went to the Deer Lodge County Courthouse to collect his birth certificate so he could apply for work at the Anaconda Copper smelter.
“My mother enrolled me in school as ‘Cebe’ McNeil,” McNeil says. “Cebe was what I’d always gone by. I like the name ‘Charles,’ but when I was in the Army, I knew if anyone addressed me by that I wouldn’t realize they were talking to me.”
His father’s name was also Charles, McNeil says, and his parents had a friend who was an author who went by “C.B.,” and so they called their son “Cebe.”
His father was a metallurgical engineer with Anaconda Copper. C.B. McNeil, an only child, was orphaned at the age of 9, when both of his parents died within months of each other.
“My aunt – my mother’s sister – raised me from there, to the extent I ever got raised,” McNeil says.
He headed off to the Montana School of Mines – now Montana Tech – after high school. Two years later, he and four classmates, who all “liked to hunt, fish and ski,” McNeil says – left Butte for Alaska.
Alaska wasn’t even a state yet.
They enrolled in the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines – now the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. McNeil was president of his college senior class in 1959, the year Alaska was admitted to the Union.
He also joined ROTC, which offered its members a chance to earn their private pilot’s licenses for free, courtesy of the Army, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Flight school took him to Fort Rucker, Ala., and when he and a buddy got their orders when they were done, they didn’t like them one bit.
“Our orders were to stay at Fort Rucker” as flight instructors, McNeil says. “I didn’t like the South. We went to the officer’s club, we were pounding beers, and then we got a roll of quarters and called the Pentagon to complain.”
Next thing they knew, McNeil says, “We had a bird colonel on the phone. He said, ‘Well, where do you want to go?’ We hadn’t thought about that.”
His friend suggested Germany because, McNeil explains, “The Duetschemark was only worth about a quarter,” and he figured their money would go farther.
It was the height of the Cold War. Khrushchev was building the Berlin Wall. JFK was blockading Cuba.
McNeil “Flew spooks (spies) up and down the German-Czechoslovakian border” in a Cessna L-19 so they could keep track of Czech and Russian tank positions.
“After driving an Army airplane and missing four consecutive opening days on the Big Hole River,” he’d had enough, McNeil says.
“I was happy in an airplane, but I wasn’t always happy with Army life,” and that’s about the time JoAnn, who he had met in school in Anaconda, showed him the Overseas Weekly advertisement.
The McNeils have two children. Son Charles “Chuck” McNeil is a partner in the Garlington Lohn Robinson law firm in Missoula, and daughter Jolie is western regional manager for the publisher McGraw-Hill.
All five of their grandchildren, McNeil says proudly, are college graduates.
McNeil came to Polson to serve an internship with a then-local attorney named Jean Turnage, and the internship turned into a job in 1966 after he graduated from law school.
In the 1980s the firm hired another recent law school grad named John Mercer.
And in 1984, Turnage ran for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court (and won), McNeil ran for the newly created 20th Judicial District for Lake and Sanders counties judgeship (and won) and Mercer ran for the Montana House of Representatives (and won).
“I think it’s the only time in history,” McNeil says with a laugh, “that the voters dissolved a law firm.”
Turnage and Mercer is still a Polson law firm – Turnage returned to private practice after 16 years as chief justice – but McNeil stayed on the bench for the rest of his career.
Oddly enough, McNeil says, there wasn’t supposed to be a new judicial district for Lake and Sanders counties in 1984.
The 4th Judicial District, headquartered in Missoula, served five counties prior to 1984, but the caseload grew to the point that another judge needed to be added.
The problem, McNeil says, was “There was no room in the Missoula County Courthouse for another judge.”
Plans by the Montana Legislature to carve a new district out of Ravalli County and put a judge in Hamilton ran into stiff opposition from elected officials there. McNeil says it was former state Sen. Bob Brown, R-Whitefish, who added up the caseload numbers and concluded Lake and Sanders counties could be combined and achieve the same thing.
McNeil filed to become the new district’s first-ever judge after practicing law for more than 18 years, he says, because “I wanted to give voters a choice, and I thought the better choice was me.”
It was his second campaign.
He was elected as a delegate to Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention at the age of 35, and is proud of the document he and 99 other Montanans crafted.
“It required government to be more open,” McNeil says. “It abolished these caucuses where the people’s business was being conducted behind closed doors.”
That hasn’t stopped some elected officials from occasionally trying to get around it, the judge admits, but citizens do have the Montana Constitution to fall back on when those attempts are made.
“Government has to be accessible, and its records open to scrutiny,” McNeil says. “I’m also proud that the Constitution gave our citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment. It means the Legislature can’t degrade our environment.”
If it had a flaw, McNeil says, some people felt the new Constitution was too easy to amend.
“It’s been amended several times by a vote of the people,” he says. “I like that. It makes it easier to change if that’s the will of the people. And it says that amendments can’t contain more than one subject – you know, ‘Here’s a good idea that people will like, and we’ll tack on something that isn’t a good idea,’ just like Congress does all the time.”
McNeil says he’s departing the one branch of government that still largely functions as it was intended.
“I firmly believe in our form of government, with three branches as set up by the people,” he says. “But the judicial branch is the only one that isn’t broke. The executive branch is totally out of control and the legislative branch can’t get anything done – it’s completely ineffective.
“But the judicial branch works, and works well, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because of our jury system, where evidence is presented to 12 citizens who come down with a verdict. I don’t know of any other place that has had a system for so many years that works, and works so well.”
Now it will have to work well without C.B. McNeil. He’s got some hunting, fishing and skiing to preside over.