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First female chief justice of Montana Supreme Court retires
Chief justice Karla Gray, pictured here in Helena, is stepping down from her prestigous career on the Montana Supreme Court. Gray is not only the first woman chief justice, but also the first woman ever elected to the Montana Supreme Court. Eliza Wiley / The Independent Record

HELENA — Chief Justice Karla Gray's place in Montana history is secure. Gray, who retired this week after 17 years on the court, was the first woman elected to the Montana Supreme Court. Eight years later, she became the first woman elected chief justice.

Under her leadership, Montana's court system has seen its most sweeping changes since the 1972 state constitution, all with little disruption.

And yet, Gray, a native of Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula, wouldn't live in Montana at all, but for an old federal judge in Butte who wrongly assumed the young lawyer with a graduate degree in African history was African-American.

As Gray tells it, Judge W.D. Murray, who became one of Gray's early legal mentors, had hoped to break some kind of legal barrier for women and minorities. It was 1976. Another judge had recently hired Montana's first female law clerk. Murray was looking to make history, too.

"He wanted to strike a blow for something," Gray said in a recent interview in her Justice Department office overlooking the snow-covered Capitol.

Gray's resume came across his desk. Along with her African history degree, Gray had also held a law degree from the University of California Hastings School of the Law in San Francisco, which then, as now, boasts a diverse student body.

At the airport when she flew in for an interview, Gray was looking for Murray's secretary, and he was looking for a young black woman. They circled each other until no one else was left in the terminal.

They had a short, weird interview, Gray said. At the end of it, they just drove around Butte and started chatting. He asked her how she liked the Mining City, which then was punctuated by regular blasts and shift changes at the Berkeley Pit copper mine.

"I loved it," Gray said. The town reminded her of home. The people were "just fabulous." At the end of a leisurely lunch, where they chatted "like old friends," Murray looked Gray straight in the eye.

"He said, ‘Karla, you are a great disappointment to me. I was so sure you were going to be black woman,'" she said.

But Murray had found his law clerk and Gray had found her home. At the time, she said, there were just two other women practicing law in all of Butte, none in private practice.

After a year with the judge, Gray took a job with Atlantic Richfield Co., which had bought the old Anaconda Co. and its Montana operations. Arco wasn't long for Montana. In the early 1980s, the company shuttered the mines and smelters and Gray, along with almost every other Arco employee in the state, lost her job.

She opened a small, one-woman legal shop, sharing space with Murray's son, who was also a lawyer. She had done some lobbying for Atlantic Richfield and lobbied again for the Montana Trial Lawyers Association at the 1983 Legislature.

Lobbying, she said, enabled her to get close to something that became a deep passion: the legislative process. After a few years, Gray took a job as a lawyer for the Montana Power Co., the state's one-time enormous regulated, monopolistic utility.

She lobbied again for the power company for three more sessions.

Gray was working for Montana Power in 1991 when her life took another twist. Republican Gov. Stan Stephens had appointed the first woman to the Montana Supreme Court, former Yellowstone District Judge Diane Barz. But Barz resigned after serving only a brief time, leaving Stephens another hole to fill.

"I was the only woman on the short list to fill that vacancy," Gray said. She also came with all the "power company baggage" and held some personal philosophical positions Gray knew ran counter to the GOP plank.

Stephens appointed her anyway.

"I always thought that was courageous," Gray said.

The next year, as per state law, Gray had to run to keep the seat. She won, becoming the first woman ever elected to the high court. She ran again in 1998 and in 2000 she ran against fellow Justice Terry Trieweiler for the court's highest seat: chief justice.

As judicial races go, the Trieweiler vs. Gray showdown was a bruiser. She prevailed by a slim 51 to 49 percent margin, with just 8,700 more votes than her opponent out of more than 380,000 ballots cast.

The election, Gray said, was "very difficult for the court. We're a small group. It got pretty tense." The 2000 election also marked a kind of watershed event: It was the election when Gray's gender, which had long held her apart, no longer seemed to matter that much.

If anything, she said, there were more people excited about electing the state's first female chief justice than people suggesting a woman couldn't cut it in the hot seat.

By then, Gray wasn't the only female justice; Justice Patricia Cotter had also been elected. And female judges were commonplace throughout Montana courts.

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"It had been quite a long time," Gray said.

As a jurist, Gray's longest legacy might be the way she handled the sweeping restructuring of the Montana judicial system, begun after the 2001 Legislature, said fellow Justice Jim Nelson.

"I think of anybody I know she was probably the most capable person to preside over that," he said.

Throughout Montana's history, its lower courts had been the responsibility of Montana's 56 counties. The high court's decision trumped a lower court's, of course, and the Montana Supreme Court laid out the rules for judges and lawyers. But the Montana court system was never organized into one single branch.

In 2001, lawmakers decided to change that, bringing all of Montana's courts under one roof, with Gray at its peak.

Gray said recently she thought it best that lawmakers make laws, so she and the rest of the court stayed out of the legislature's talk on what became known as "district court assumption." When they were all done, lawmakers had laid out a plan that called for the high court to assume all other courts, but money to do so was very tight.

"There were days, in the early days of state assumption, when I was just assailed all day long," she said. The court formally assumed all lower courts on July 1, 2002.

Today, Gray said, she's pleased that the Montana court system works as one branch, running more efficiently with greater opportunities for judges and others to receive statewide training.

"It created a much better branch," she said, and helped her accomplish one of her goals: Bring greater identity to the Montana court system, although, she says with a laugh "that's not why the Legislature did it." Gray has also taken up the cause of children in the court system. Custody cases, particularly in cases where both parents are losing custody, can take years grinding through the courts. When you're talking about a child who is only 1 or 2 years old, the court process may consume the majority of that child's life.

Two summers ago, Gray convened a statewide conference in Helena to talk about ways of speeding up these cases. She put her money where her mouth is, too: Custody cases used to take up to year to work through the Montana Supreme Court. After Gray's initiative began, those cases are now fast-tracked and can be decided in a matter of weeks.

"These kids and their families need to have a final answer and move on into the future," she said.

Nelson said Gray, as a jurist, is always a friend, even if she disagrees with another justice's legal opinion.

"She's got a great quality of character," he said. "When the torch was passed to her, she carried it well and will pass on a very well-organized, well-funded judicial branch to Chief Justice-elect (Mike) McGrath."

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