HELENA - The weather might have kept Beth Baker's parents in Spokane, but she had a room full of proud, teary-eyed supporters nonetheless as she took her place on Montana's high court Monday afternoon.
In fact, there weren't enough seats for all the friends, family and state dignitaries who squeezed into the Montana Supreme Court chambers to watch Baker take her oath and don her robe, becoming the fourth woman to hold a spot on the seven-member court.
"For the first time in many, many months, I'm speechless," she said, looking out at the crowd.
Sitting next to Justice Patricia Cotter, she said she was proud to be one of only a handful of women to earn a seat on the bench, especially since she was elected to the position, rather than appointed. She spoke of her hope to safeguard the independence of the judicial branch and give people faith in the justice system, noting the power of a country that resolves conflicts through rule of law, rather than "might and bloodshed."
She also offered some words of inspiration.
"When you believe in something - when you have a passion - you have to go after it," she said.
Baker replaces Justice William Leaphart, who retired after serving for 16 years and endorsed Baker as his successor. Baker, who'd worked as a private attorney in Helena for the past decade, won the November election against 15-year District Judge Nels Swandal with more than 52 percent of the vote.
Prior to joining the law firm of Hughes, Kellner, Sullivan and Alke in 2000, Baker worked for the Department of Justice, serving as chief deputy attorney general for four years. She started her career in law as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell after graduating from the University of Montana School of Law in 1985.
It was Lovell who provided Baker's introduction before the gathered audience and six other Supreme Court justices.
He first met Baker over the phone, when she called his office asking for a job. Because the third district judgeship was new at the time, Lovell had no staff, much less a secretary, and answered the call himself.
"She made a very favorable impression on me," he said.
Baker ended up working for Lovell for four years, acting as one of his closest legal advisers and dealing with a backlog of about 500 cases, arriving in the office at 7:15 every morning. Lovell deemed her trustworthy, hardworking, skilled at research, reasoning and communication, and aware of the importance of equal justice under the law.
"Now, she's where she belongs," he said. "Beth Baker is a premier human being. She's outstanding in every respect."
Former Chief Justice Karla Gray, the first woman elected to the Montana Supreme Court, seemed to agree. She's known Baker for most of her career in law and isn't surprised she made it as far as she did.
"I had encouraged her to come to the court earlier," Gray said.
Now that she's there, Lovell expects Baker to make an impression early in her eight-year term.
"I know that after six months, you'll wonder how you got along without her," he said.
Reporter Allison Maier: (406) 447-4075 or allison.maier @helenair.com.