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Jim Shea sworn in

From left Montana Supreme Court Justice Mike McGrath swears in Supreme Court Justice Jim Shea.

HELENA–Jim Shea was sworn in Monday as a new justice on Montana Supreme Court justice before a standing-room only crowd before the court.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced last month he was appointing Shea to the seat vacated by Justice Brian Morris, who resigned in December to become a federal judge. Shea, 48, previously had served as the state workers’ compensation judge since 2005.

Shea’s wife, Kathy, helped him into his robe, and then Chief Justice Mike McGrath administered the oath of office to Shea.

The ceremony was almost a roast, with some of Shea’s friends talking about some of his wild days growing up in Butte and attending Butte Central High School.

They told how Shea was the youngest of six children raised by a widowed mother and how he put himself through the University of Montana by tending bar in Missoula and working for the Metro Sewer in Butte during summers. They talked about his occasional long-winded story-telling, his acting in community theater and his pride in his wife and their two daughters, Kate and Mo.

“There are many individual traits that Jimmy shares with a lot of great people – honesty, integrity, humility, intelligence,” Missoula lawyer Lance Jasper said. “But there’s one trait that makes him stand apart from all others, and that’s selflessness.”

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Jasper said he had seen Shea interact with the most influential members of society, along with the poor, the addicted, the sick and dying, “and he treats everyone exactly the same.”

He offered some advices to the justices about their colleague when they are divided 3-to-3, trying to decide a case and pitching for his vote: “Keep a stash of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups chilled, but not frozen. I’m not saying it will buy his vote, but it will get his attention.”

“Advice taken,” McGrath said.

His former law partner, David Paoli, of Missoula, said, “Jim is quite a story teller. I just have to tell you when you get to know him and when he comes in your chamber, and he says, ‘Have I told you the one about?’ just say, ‘Yeah, you have.’”

Paoli said it was appropriate that Shea now has the title justice before his name because “over the years, he has sought justice and he has fought for justice.”

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Morris said he had known Shea for 35 years and they played football together for Butte Central. He said they used to eat lunch together regularly and enjoy two Butte favorites, with Shea buying when they had pork chops and Morris when they had pasties.

To give the justices a preview of what their Tuesday conferences now will be like, Morris told how Shea had visited his mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and two sisters in Butte before her death in 2007. Shea went on at some length updating them on his life and his family.

Shea’s mother had finally heard enough and turned to one of her daughters and said, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, does that guy ever shut up?’” Morris said. “Members of the court, I’m afraid not. I’m afraid that Jim Shea will not shut up until he has stated fully his position, with thoughtfulness, reason and an eye toward fairness.”

Shea praised his mother as the largest influence on his life, along with his wife and daughters. He thanked those he had worked with throughout his legal career and thanked Bullock for appointing him.

“If you love what you do, you never work a day in our life, and that’s certainly the way it’s felt through most of my career,” She said. “I really have loved practicing law, I’ve loved being a judge and I’m really looking forward to this.”

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Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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