POLSON — Jean A. Turnage, former chief of the Montana Supreme Court and the first Native American elected to statewide office, died of natural causes Sunday in Ronan, his son Lloyd Turnage said. He was 89.
Lloyd Turnage described his father as a humble man and natural leader who could work across the political spectrum and saw his work as an attorney as a way to help people through tough times.
“Dad did not ever make a big deal about what he was, who he was, at any time of his life,” Lloyd Turnage said Monday. “I never heard him brag ever one time about what he had accomplished or who he was.”
Turnage began his career in public service in 1952 as Lake County attorney — just a year out of law school. He served for 10 years.
He then returned to private practice while serving 22 years in the Legislature, most of the time with his Republican party in the minority.
There were no term limits in place, so lawmakers learned to compromise and work together, Lloyd Turnage said.
“Some of his best friends were Democrats,” his son said. “It wasn’t polarized like it has been for quite some time now.”
Turnage was elected chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1983 and served two 8-year terms before retiring.
At the time, his successor, Karla Gray, called Turnage well-grounded, well-balanced, caring and someone who took a common-sense approach.
“His legacy is so many things, but among them is a total commitment and dedication to the court and a court that is the servant to the people of Montana,” Gray told Lee Newspapers of Montana.
Current Chief Justice Mike McGrath echoed Gray’s comments about Turnage’s dedication to the court and commitment to public service.
“He did serve on a court that sometimes had some members that had contentious feelings and strongly held views about different issues,” McGrath said Monday. “He thought it was important for him to keep the ship afloat … to keep peace in the family as best he could.”
Attorney General Tim Fox clerked for the Supreme Court when Turnage was chief justice.
“Chief Justice Turnage epitomized the best of Montana’s public servants as a World War II veteran, a state legislator, and as a distinguished jurist,” Fox said in a statement. “Montana will miss his leadership and example, but all Montanans are better off because (of) all he did in his many years of public service.”
Turnage was born in St. Ignatius on March 10, 1926 and was an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He was raised on his parents’ farm and graduated from high school in 1944. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps that year and after his discharge in 1946, entered Montana State University, now the University of Montana. He worked his way through college under the G.I. Bill and while working road construction jobs. He graduated from the School of Law in 1951.
He rose to leadership throughout his career.
Turnage was the president of the state county attorney’s association in 1959, served as Senate president during the 1981 session and was the president of the National Conference of Chief Justices from 1993-94, his son said.
“He was a leader without actually seeking it out,” Lloyd Turnage said.
When asked, at the time of his retirement, how he wanted to be remembered, Turnage said he hoped Montanans felt he “did what he thought was right” and “did less harm than he could have.”
Turnage is survived by his wife of 62 years, Eula May, their children Lloyd and Pat, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled Thursday afternoon at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Polson, followed by a graveside service with military honors at Lakeview Cemetery.
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