HELENA – Friends and colleagues on Monday called federal appeals court Judge Sidney Thomas of Montana a coalition builder who would be a worthy pick to replace Justice John Paul Stevens and one who would add a needed Western perspective to the Supreme Court.
The Associated Press has learned Thomas is one of about 10 people President Barack Obama is seriously reviewing as a potential nominee to replace Stevens, who is retiring this summer.
Thomas, 56, of Billings, serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, nominated in July 1995 by then-President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in January 1996, with no controversy.
The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit is widely perceived as liberal. But Bernard “Bud” Longo, a 92-year-old conservative Republican and a former law partner with Thomas at Moulton Bellingham PC, said that label does not apply to Thomas, whom he described as an independent thinker.
“I wouldn’t class Sid Thomas with the 9th Circuit,” Longo said. “I know he’s in it, but I don’t think he’s as rabid as that bunch.”
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who went to law school with Thomas at the University of Montana, said he believes Thomas and Stevens share many of the same qualities: kindness, a willingness to listen, a keen intellect and a forcefulness when it comes to expressing his view.
“I think he’s a very bright man, even when he reverses me,” Molloy said.
Both Molloy and retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier said the addition of Thomas would bring a voice from the West to the nation’s highest court. Issues such as water rights and mineral extraction that are important to people in the West may not be as important to people in the East, Regnier said.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was born in Texas but most of her law career before joining the Supreme Court was spent in Arizona. Justice Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer are both from California, while the seven other justices are from east of the Mississippi River.
“It would be nice to have someone from the West,” Molloy said. “I understand how important Harvard and Yale are, but I don’t think everybody on the Supreme Court should be from Harvard and Yale.”
Regnier, who said he has known Thomas since Thomas was a lawyer in Billings, said the judge has an uncanny ability to walk into a room where people have very different, passionate views, and bring them together to discuss the issues.
“I think he’d be more in the line of Justice Stevens. I think he’d have the ability to build coalitions between people who have different ideas on different issues,” Regnier said.
A woman who answered the phone at Thomas chambers in Billings said he was not in town on Monday and two messages were not returned. A call to his wife’s office, Billings attorney Martha Sheehy, also was not returned.
Among the others under consideration are former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, federal appeals court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Randy Bishop, a Billings attorney who also went to law school with Thomas, said he told Thomas at the time of his confirmation to the federal appeals court that he was suited to land on the Supreme Court one day.
“He just laughed it off in a modest way,” said Bishop, “and said ‘I’m glad to get on the 9th Circuit right now.'”
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