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Chief Justice Jean A. Turnage

In this March 2, 1999 photo, Chief Justice Jean A. Turnage speaks to the Montana Legislature in Helena. The 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.

POLSON — Jean A. Turnage, former chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, has died in Ronan. He was 89.

The Lake Funeral Home & Crematory said Turnage died Sunday at St. Luke Extended Care. The cause of death was not immediately available.

Turnage began his career in public service in 1952 as Lake County attorney. He practiced law and served two years in the House, followed by 20 years in the state Senate. He served as Senate president during the 1981 session. In 1984, he ran for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court. He served two terms, retiring in January 2001.

At the time, his successor, Karla Gray, called Turnage well-grounded, well-balanced and 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.

When asked 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."

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Turnage was born in St. Ignatius on March 10, 1926, 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 graduated from the School of Law in 1951.

He married Eula Mae Johnson in 1952. They had a son and a daughter.

Turnage said he had no regrets about his years in public service.

"I suppose, without thinking twice, I'd probably try to do it all again," he said in 2001.

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