POLSON – He was the first enrolled member of an Indian tribe elected to statewide office in Montana – as chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, no less – and one of what is likely a relatively short list of people who have served in all three branches of state government.
Along the way, Jean A. Turnage made oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case he won), served as both minority and majority leader of the state Senate (as well as its president) and, before any of that, spent five terms as a county attorney.
Even after all that, Turnage – who died Sunday at the age of 89 – was still “lawyering” at his longtime Polson firm, Turnage & Mercer, as late as last year.
“Here was a guy who had argued before the United States Supreme Court,” says his law partner, John Mercer, “and it didn’t matter if you were having trouble with a car title, he’d help you. He was always so kind, and nothing was beneath him.”
One of Turnage’s greatest gifts, Mercer says, was an ability to solve conflicts in a way that left “everybody feeling they’d gotten their way.”
“If they were on the wrong track, he’d show people the way to the right track in a way that made them feel like they’d found it themselves,” Mercer says. “He liked people and respected people, and the respect was based on their humanity, not their importance.
“He was the kind of guy who, if he’d gotten in a poker game with you, you’d think, ‘Boy, I’m going to cream this guy.’ He was so quiet, so humble, so non-threatening. Midway through the game, he’d be explaining to you how poker really works. By the end of the game, he’d have all the chips, and you’d be happy you’d learned so much about poker. He was really a magician that way.”
Born in St. Ignatius in 1926, Turnage, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1944 and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
He served as a top turret gunner on a B-29, and enrolled at the University of Montana after his honorable discharge in 1946.
By 1951, he had a law degree from UM and a private practice in Polson. Within a year, he also had a wife – he married Eula Mae Johnson – and had entered public service, winning office as Lake County attorney.
Turnage, a Republican, was elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1962. In 1964, he moved up to the state Senate, where he spent 20 years, chaired both the powerful Taxation and Judiciary committees and served as minority leader, majority leader and president of the Senate.
His Democratic counterpart during his time as minority leader was Senate Majority Leader Bill Groff, D-Victor.
Groff, who died in 2002, once told one of Turnage’s former law partners, C.B. McNeil, of the respect Turnage earned during his two decades in the Senate.
Democrats would often ask the Republican to vet their proposed legislation before it was introduced, Groff told McNeil.
“A lot of state legislators don’t have legal backgrounds, so they’d take it to Jean,” McNeil says. “Jean would tell them, without exception, he might very well have to oppose the legislation, but he’d be happy to help them clean it up so it was in the proper legal form. That’s the kind of leader Jean Turnage was – always civil and respectful – and that’s how things got done back in the day when the Legislature worked.”
Whether it was proposed legislation or courtroom documents, Turnage was so meticulous he was not only an attorney, Mercer says – he became a verb at his own firm.
“He was such a careful lawyer,” Mercer says. “He’d always read entire documents and see every word in them, he was so thorough. Sometimes we have cases here where we’ll say, ‘You really need to Jean Turnage this one.’ ”
On the floor of the Senate, Turnage would rise and invoke the names of two people he had made up – the occasionally widowed Nanny Belle Nickleberry, and the villain Herkimer Zelakowski – to explain to his fellow legislators how legislation they were considering would play out on the streets of Montana.
Sometimes it was how Nanny Belle would be taken advantage of by proposed legislation, and sometimes it was how she would be taken advantage of if proposed legislation didn’t pass.
“He was very opposed to gambling being introduced in the state, and fought it tooth and claw,” says former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown, who served with Turnage in the state Senate.
In one of Turnage’s floor-of-the-Senate stories, Brown says, Nanny Belle lost her widow status so Turnage could illustrate his point. In it, Nanny Belle’s husband lost the family’s cow in a poker game.
“Herkimer Zelakowski showed up the next morning with his truck to haul the cow away,” Brown recalls. “Nanny Belle is in tears, the kids are all scared about what's going to happen to them, and the milk cow the family depended on gets carted off because of a gambling debt.”
Brown says he was surprised to learn that most of Turnage’s Nanny Belle-Herkimer tales were based on true stories. Turnage told him when he was a child in St. Ignatius, the Turnages' neighbors had lost the cow they depended on for milk, butter and cream.
“Jean was probably the most significant state senator I ever served with,” Brown says. “In fact, I shouldn’t say ‘probably.’ He definitely was. He always made it easy for you to agree with him. He had an absolute genius for it.”
And casino gambling was not legalized in Montana until the 1985 legislative session – the first time in 22 years that Turnage was not a member of the Legislature.
In 1984, McNeil likes to say, for the first time in Montana history, a law firm was dissolved by the voters of Montana.
Turnage was elected chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court that year. At the same time, McNeil was elected District Court judge, and Mercer was elected to the Montana House of Representatives.
That was all three of the attorneys who worked at the firm that had just become Turnage, McNeil and Mercer, with Mercer having been named a partner just that year.
McNeil, who also helped write Montana’s new Constitution in 1972 when he was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was now the first judge in Montana’s newly created 20th Judicial District. Mercer, meantime, went on to spend 16 years in the Legislature, including eight as speaker of the House.
“I know when I got to Helena, people said, ‘Oh, you’re from Jean’s office,’ ” Mercer says. “I had instant credibility based on the respect Jean had earned there.”
And the guy whose name came first on the law firm was the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. It was a rather remarkable accomplishment from a single small-town law firm.
Jean Turnage was Montana’s chief justice for 16 years. Over the course of 48 years – five times running for county attorney, once for the state House, five times for the state Senate and twice for Montana’s chief justice – he never lost an election.
In 1976, while still a state senator, Turnage and Missoula attorney Sam Haddon – who is now a U.S. District Court judge – were appointed special assistant attorneys general by the state and successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which Montana sought to require Indian tribes to withhold state taxes on cigarettes sold on reservations.
“Few practicing attorneys ever personally argue a case in front of the United States Supreme Court,” Mercer says. “Other than serving as a chief justice, that’s probably the pinnacle of a lawyer’s career.”
Brown notes that when Turnage was Lake County attorney, he was elected president of the Montana County Attorneys Association. While he was a state senator, he was elected majority leader and, later, president of the Senate. When he was Montana’s chief justice, Turnage was elected president of the national Conference of Chief Justices.
“He pretty much rose to the top of his profession at every level,” Brown says.
“When I was in the Senate, he took me aside one time and told me, ‘I think you’ll be in leadership some day,' ” Brown says. “His advice to me was, always leave the Democrats a place to stand. He said when Republicans were in the majority, the voters expected us to govern in a conservative way, but they didn’t vote us in to humiliate Democrats.
“Rather than take the whole loaf of bread, he told me when we’re in the majority to take two-thirds of the loaf, and make sure some is left over for the other side. ‘Treat them the same way you’d want to be treated if you were in the minority,’ he said, ‘because sometimes you will be. If you don’t, this body will turn into a Sicillian vendetta.' ”
It was, Brown says, the Golden Rule applied to politics, and it has largely been lost at both the national and state levels, where he says vindictiveness and partisanship “are the reasons the system isn’t functional anymore.”
“Everyone knew how smart, and wise, and fair Jean Turnage was,” Brown says. “He was the furthest thing from Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh there was.”
“He was not flamboyant at all,” Mercer says. “He was quiet, trusting and non-threatening, but he was always driving the boat.”
Turnage died at St. Luke Extended Care in Ronan. He is survived by his wife Eula Mae, daughter Patricia, son Lloyd, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
His funeral is scheduled Thursday at 1 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Polson. Brown will deliver the eulogy.
Burial, with full military honors, will follow at Lake View Cemetery.