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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Remembering Karla Gray, Montana's First Female Supreme Court Chief Justice

Karla Gray in 1999. Gray was Montana’s first female Supreme Court Justice.

Flags across Montana flew at half-staff Tuesday in honor of Montana’s first female Supreme Court Chief Justice, Karla Gray. Gray died Sunday in Helena of cancer. She was 69-years-old.In 2000, Gray was elected chief justice,  a first for a woman in Montana. She served on the court from 1991 to 2008. One of the attorneys Gray worked with early in her career was Beth Baker.

Baker became a Montana Supreme Court Justice in 2011. She describes Gray as both a mentor and friend who also worked to ensure children didn’t languish in the court system.

Beth Baker: Her primary achievements are in these three areas: one, kids in the court system; two, with what's known as district court assumption. She was the chief at the time that the Judicial branch became a branch instead of 56 different counties or 46 judges operating their own districts, and we now have a centralized system of court operations that wouldn't have happened without her leadership. And then the third thing is access to justice. She lived and and breathed the principles that justice is for everyone.

Edward O'Brien: What an enormous legacy.

BB: Yeah, it's going to be really hard to replace her.

EO: I think I read that when she first came to Montana from northern Michigan back in the mid-70s to clerk for Judge Murray, there were just two women practicing law in all of Butte.

BB: She told me a story one time that Judge Murray brought her up to interview because one of the other judges had hired the first female law clerk in Montana. And when Judge Murray saw her resume and saw that she had majored in African studies, he thought she was African American, and he thought, 'I can one-up Smith by hiring a black woman.' And then she showed up and wasn't black at all, but he was very impressed with her, and hired her and there she stayed.

EO: It's a long way from then to breaking two major glass ceilings. How did she do it? Was it just a force of her own personality? Was the time right for that to happen?

BB: I think both, but I think it really was Karla. She was the die-hard campaigner. She knew that Montana is a place where people vote for people they have met and know and trust. And she earned that trust.

EO: 69 years old, insanely too young. Do we have any idea of any memorials or services at this point or is it still too early?

BB: Karla's a strong fashion. She insisted there would not be a service. You know, memorials to the Montana Justice Foundation because she was a long time supporter of or charity to the donors. I think obviously there will be tributes to Karla - she won't be able to avoid that - but there won't be a formal service at her wishes. Montana has a lost a giant, not only for many generations of women who looked up to Karla and were inspired by her leadership, but everyone. I think her legacy will be the mission of achieving justice for all.

EO: Beth Baker is an associate justice on the Montana Supreme Court.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Chief Justice Gray was the first woman to serve on the Montana Supreme Court, which is wrong. Diane Barz was the first. We regret the error. 

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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