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An inspiring evening: Awards Banquet honorees lift spirits at Annual Meeting ceremony

The State Bar of Montana honored numerous legal professionals for careers working to better the legal system and access to justice in Montana at an Awards Banquet ceremony that left many feeling uplifted, and even drew a few tears. 

Among those honored were:

Dorothy Bradley (William J. Jameson Award), who followed up a groundbreaking political career with a second career as a lawyer working on a variety of environmental issues and helping transform the legal system in Gallatin County ; 

Chief Judge Stacie FourStar of the Fort Peck Tribal Court (Karla M. Gray Equal Justice Award); 

Judy Williams (George L. Bousliman Professionalism Award), who has spent much of her career serving children involved in the state’s abuse and neglect system; 

Former Montana Legal Services Association Executive Director Klaus Sitte (Neil Haight Pro Bono Award), who has continued to be a pro bono workhorse and strong advocate for pro bono work long after retiring as executive director at MLSA; 

and MLSA tribal law attorney Kathryn Seaton (Frank I. Haswell Award for best contribution to the Montana Lawyer), whose ongoing series of articles on Indian Law has helped shed light on one of the least understood areas of law in Montana. 

According to secretary-treasurer of the Board of Trustees Alanah Griffith, who nominated Bradley for the Jameson, Bradley’s impact on Montana’s government and legal system became very apparent to her when she attended this year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Montana Constitutional Convention.

“Every single person who talked – all the former delegates, all the inspirational speakers, pretty much anyone who held a microphone – referred to Dorothy as instrumental in bringing Montana to where we are today” Griffith said. “She drove that by bringing people who thought they would never get to the table together, together, and found that common ground.”

For her part, Bradley encouraged those in attendance to continue to work to build bridges, even though things may seem especially divisive at the moment.

“For those I hear saying the time of that kind of productive partnerships are long past, my response is, it’s up to us,” Bradley said. “The question of the day is whether we, with all of our differences but with our boundless love for the state of Montana, will step up. You are the ones who understand the value of our system of laws, and your voices have never been more needed and more important. The repercussions of squandering this little window of opportunity are too grim to even imagine. This is our moment; this is our time to champion the Jameson standard. 

Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, who introduced Judge FourStar for the Equal Justice Award, said she was inspired when she read the slate of award winners this year. “It’s such a great group and a wide variety of backgrounds and legal careers. I think it shows that there’s not one mold that you have to fit as a lawyer to be doing good for your community and your state and the people at large.”

Justice Baker said there couldn’t be a more fitting recipient of the award, saying that in addition to the myriad improvements to access to justice she has overseen in the Fort Peck Tribal Court system, Judge FourStar has been a tremendous partner in developing a Tribal Way Advocacy Program that she said is already proving itself as a fabulous program for parties in civil cases. 

In accepting the Haswell Award, Seaton said her series has been a group effort from the beginning, from the expertise of the tribal law practitioners and judges featured in her Q&A format articles to the support and help of her colleagues – adding that she played perhaps the smallest part in the project. She also managed to put in a plug for lawyers to help with tribal law work.

“If it piqued your interest, or if any of your other lawyer friends are interested, we are always looking for pro bono volunteers at MLSA, so feel free to reach out,” she told the audience with a smile. 

Outgoing State Bar President Brian C. Smith, who ended the evening by introducing new President David Steele, noted the uplifting spirit of the evening.

“If you don’t feel better about the practice of law after tonight, you probably don’t have a heartbeat,” Smith said. 

Steele echoed Bradley’s remarks in his address, noting how vital lawyers are to ensuring that the rule of law survives. 

The State Bar has an important role to play right now,” Steele said. “The institutions that we have relied upon for hundreds of years, it looks like they’re in peril. In our country, like in many, it’s most often been that the lawyers are the leaders. In our greatest moment of peril, when we may well have divided in two, it was a lawyer who kept it together. We are privileged to have that special knowledge and special training. We need to put that to use now. Now is the time. It’s up to us.”