Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sidney R. Thomas from Billings opened a special hearing of oral arguments Thursday in Billings by thanking retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for sitting on the panel three-judge panel.
“That’s not a hard decision,” quipped O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the high court.
The panel, comprised of Thomas, O’Connor and Appellate Judge William A. Fletcher, of San Francisco, then got down to business, questioning attorneys on three Montana cases under appeal before a packed courtroom. A standing-room-only crowd of almost 200 federal and state court officials, attorneys, law clerks and students and teachers attended the hour-and-a-half-long session.
The judges followed the hearing with a luncheon with the Yellowstone Area Bar Association where they fielded questions from lawyers and law students.
O’Connor then met with about 40 area teachers to encourage civics education in middle schools. O’Connor urged teachers to use a website she started, www.ourcourts.org, as a fun and informative resource for helping middle school students learn about the judicial system and government.
Thoughout her full schedule, the 80-year-old O’Connor graciously shook hands with well-wishers and posed for photographs. She answered questions with a witty, down-to-earth style.
Asked at the luncheon to name her favorite Montana river for fishing, O’Connor said, “Oh, this is a setup! Let’s start with the Big Horn.”
O’Connor floated the Big Horn River on Wednesday with Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom, of Billings, a close friend and long-time fishing buddy. The two plan to go fishing again on Friday.
“We did real well. She out-fished us all,” said Shanstrom, who listened to the arguments from the jury box.
Appointed to the high court in 1981 by President Reagan, O’Connor served 25 years before retiring in 2006. Because she maintains an office, O’Connor said she is required to sit on lower court cases. She has heard a number of cases across the country and several in the 9th Circuit, but this was her first time hearing cases in Montana.
“It was a real treat to be asked to sit on these cases,” she said.
Special hearings in Montana of appellate cases has become more frequent since Thomas joined the circuit in 1996. Prior to Thomas’ appointment, the circuit had held only one sitting in Montana. Thomas has been on all of the Montana special sitting panels, which is normal procedure.
O’Connor was most active in questioning attorneys on a criminal case in which Canadian citizen Timothy Morneau is appealing is conviction on drug charges involving ecstasy. Morneau claims that a vehicle stop by a Montana Highway Patrol trooper near Glendive and subsequent search and seizure were not based on reasonable suspicion and that the judge should have suppressed evidence seized at the stop.
Morneau’s attorney, David Duke, was explaining how his client had been asleep in the front passenger seat of the car during the stop when the judges questioned whether Morneau was really asleep.
“The radio was on pretty loud and the window was open and it was freezing cold,” O’Connor said.
“It was zero degrees,” Thomas said.
“In Arizona, that would be cold,” said O’Connor, who is from Arizona.
The justices also heard two civil cases. One was Lovaas v. Bureau of Land Management, in which Patty Lovaas and Elkhorn Hot Springs Inc., argued the BLM failed to do a reasonable document search in response to their Freedom of Information Act request for information about a timber sale.
The other case was McCollough v. Johnson, Rodenburg and Lauinger, in which JLR, a North Dakota debt-collection law firm, is appealing a jury verdict awarding $311,000 in damages to Billings resident Timothy McCollough. McCollough, who attended Thursday’s hearing, sued the firm alleging it violated federal laws and was malicious in trying to collect on an old credit card debt.
Thomas said the panel would issue its rulings later.
Thomas, himself a recent finalist to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, introduced his colleagues at the luncheon before turning it over for questions, most of which were for O’Connor.
Although it took 191 years for a woman to be named to the Supreme Court, O’Connor said that opened doors for women around the country and the world.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill Steven’s seat, is expected to receive final Senate approval next month. She would become the current court’s third woman judge, along with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor.
O’Connor also described her struggle to find a job after graduating with a law degree from Stanford University.
“I called everyone on the placement board. Not one of them would give me an interview,” she said. Her first job was volunteering for the county attorney in San Mateo, Calif., because he had no budget to hire her.
“I worked for no money, and I put my desk in with the secretary,” she said. “I must say, things have changed since then, haven’t they?”
When a woman asked about balancing a family with a career, O’Connor said, “Well, sure, it’s a big problem. I never had five minutes to myself. Could I get my nails done? No. Was it worth it? Yes. I was really lucky.”
O’Connor said her biggest worry was wondering what her children were doing when she wasn’t home. Knowing they were busy at her parents’ ranch helped ease her mind.
“You have a few ranches in Montana. Get them busy,” she joked. “It’s not easy, and there are no answers.”
While the Supreme Court may be becoming more balanced between men and women, O’Connor said the court could use some more Westerners.
“We’re missing somebody from the West,” she said. “That makes a big difference” when deciding issues that involve water rights, land and agriculture, she said.
Most of the current justices have strong ties to the East, and eight of the nine justices have Ivy League law degrees. Retiring Justice Stevens is the only non-Ivy Leaguer.
Contact Clair Johnson at email@example.com or 657-1282.