Sidney R. Thomas, a federal appeals court judge from Billings, may not have the traditional Eastern elite background of a Supreme Court justice, but Montanans who work with him say it would be hard to find a better candidate for the highest court.
Thomas, 56, who was born in Bozeman and graduated from Montana State University and the University of Montana Law School, is one of 10 candidates President Barack Obama is considering as a replacement for retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Obama is expected to announce his selection around the end of May.
“If I were the president and I wanted to get somebody through before the end of this summer, I would say he’d be using his head in nominating Sid, or his advisers would,” said Montana’s chief U.S. district judge, Richard Cebull of Billings. “I think Sid would have a lot easier time getting through the Senate than some other people I’ve read about. He’s got friends on both sides of the aisle.”
Thomas was nominated to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1995 with the backing of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Although then Sen. Conrad Burns, a conservative Republican, stalled the nomination for months in a bid to split the huge circuit court, he backed Thomas.
Baucus said he’s known Thomas a long time and described him as “one of the most qualified, outstanding judges in the nation.”
“I think he’s got as good a chance as any,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings. “He’s not branded as too liberal. Our political philosophies are a little bit different, but I wouldn’t ask for a better judge than Sid Thomas.”
Although he has been in the public eye since his college days, when he was appointed one of the first student members of the Montana Board of Regents in 1974, Thomas has not been a polarizing figure. He served on that board while an undergraduate at MSU and was reappointed in 1976 while at UM.
After receiving his law degree, Thomas moved to Billings and joined the firm of Moulton, Bellingham, Longo and Mather, where he was a senior partner at the time of his appointment to the appeals court.
Among his specialties were First Amendment and media law. His clients included The Billings Gazette, NBC, CNN and other newspapers and radio and television stations. He also served as a director and former president of Friends of KEMC (now Friends of Public Radio), Montana Public Radio, and vice president of Billings Community Cable Corp., where he was a frequent election-night commentator.
The primary focus of his practice was commercial litigation, including product liability, employment, environmental and mineral rights, representing both plaintiffs and defendants. He has represented the state of Montana, the city of Billings and other Montana cities and counties. He was appointed trustee in more than 1,500 bankruptcy cases.
Cebull said he started working with Thomas right after Thomas moved to Billings in 1978. They sometimes represented different defendants in the same lawsuit, he said.
“I got to know him first as a trial lawyer,” Cebull said. “He was a great trial lawyer. What a great addition that would be — someone who tried real cases in a real courtroom. The Supreme Court needs that kind of experience. It needs a trial lawyer’s point of view.”
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula also has known Thomas for decades. Molloy was a couple of years ahead of Thomas in law school, and both worked as counselors at Boys State. They also knew each other through years of private practice in Billings.
“He’s an incredible person,” Molloy said. “I think it’s a great choice. He has many characteristics I’ve read that Judge Stevens has — the same quiet, courteous demeanor.”
“When you talk to him, he’s really quiet and down-to-earth,” he said. “Even when he overrules you, he does it in a way that doesn’t make you feel too bad.”
“Just to be on that short list shows what respect he has in the legal field,” Shanstrom said.
Thomas maintains chambers in Billings and travels to San Francisco to hear oral arguments. He is married to Billings attorney Martha Sheehy.
If Thomas were to be named to the Supreme Court, he would be the first Montanan to serve in that capacity.
Of the sitting justices, eight graduated from Ivy League law schools — four from Harvard, three from Yale and one from Columbia. Seven hail from east of the Mississippi. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer are from California, but both went to Harvard.
“To have a Montanan as a potential nominee to serve on the highest court in the land is a tremendous honor for our state,” Baucus said.