HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday appointed state Workers’ Compensation Judge Jim Shea to be a justice on the Montana Supreme Court, citing his reputation as “a fair and intelligent judge.”
“His understanding and respect for both the Montana and U.S. constitutions make him well suited to serve the people of Montana as a member of the Supreme Court,” Bullock said.
Shea will bring “a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Montana Supreme Court” from his humble beginnings in Butte and more than 20 years as an attorney, Bullock said.
The 48-year-old Shea will succeed former Justice Brian Morris, who resigned in December to become a U.S. district judge.
“I’m really looking forward to it and it’s exciting,” Shea said in an interview. “Obviously the main difference is going from being a trial judge for the last 8 ½ years to being an appellate court judge.”
Bullock selected Shea from four finalists recommended by the Judicial Nomination Commission from a field of 15 attorneys who applied for the vacancy.
Shea has served as state workers’ compensation judge since 2005 when he was appointed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who reappointed him in 2011. The Montana Senate confirmed Shea both times.
“The main reason this appeals to me is it’s a chance to continue public service,” Shea said, adding that he enjoyed being a workers’ compensation judge “tremendously.”
As for his judicial philosophy, Shea said, “I’ve always tried to do what a judge is supposed to do — call balls and strikes. I’m a Mariners’ fan. I don’t get to change the strike zone just because the Yankees are at bat.”
He said attorneys from across the philosophical and ideological spectrum wrote letters to the Judicial Nomination Commission in support of his application.
Shea faces Senate confirmation next year and then will have to run for the seat in 2016, which he intends to do.
He had been gearing up to run for the seat this year in the event Morris was confirmed earlier by the U.S. Senate. However, Morris’ confirmation came too late for that justice seat to go on the 2014 ballot.
A Butte native, Shea is a graduate of Butte Central High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Montana.
He was a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Paul Hatfield in Great Falls in 1991-1992. He moved to Portland where his wife attended graduate school there and he practiced both civil and criminal law there from 1992-1996.
Shea practiced civil law in Missoula from 1996-2005, including with the law firm of Paoli and Shea, from 2001-2005, prior to his appointment as workers’ compensation judge.
It was uncertain exactly when Shea would resign as workers’ compensation judge to be sworn in as one of the seven Montana Supreme Court justices.
Shea said he will confer with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath on the timing.
In the meantime, Shea said he will meet with his staff Tuesday and assess what pending work on the Workers’ Compensation Court he wants to complete and not leave it for his successor.
Shea said he hopes he can finish up his duties as workers’ compensation judge by the end of May.
He then will resign as workers’ compensation judge, which in turn will trigger a process by which lawyers can apply with the Judicial Nomination Commission for that job.
Fifteen attorneys applied for the open Supreme Court seat. Shea was one of two applicants with experience as a judge.
The Montana Judicial Nomination Commission recommended four candidates to Bullock. He interviewed all four individually last week before appointing Shea.
The other three finalists were Beth Brennan, of Missoula; Amy Poehling Eddy, of Kalispell; and Patrick Watt, of Great Falls.