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Longtime district court judge fondly remembered

POLSON — A celebrated lawyer and efficient, no-frills judge of the 20th Judicial District for 29 years, C.B. McNeil died April 20 at age 80. His life was celebrated at Polson’s Linderman Gymnasium on Saturday, April 29. 

Judge James A. Manley, who was appointed to replace McNeil in October 2013, described him last week as “something of a giant.” 

“When I heard (of his passing), it’s like Polson isn’t the same town because he took up such a big space here for so long,” he said.

Manley, who had a law practice in town for nearly 35 years, recalls getting a text from an unknown source in 2013 that said, “I want you to succeed me.” 

“I didn’t know who it was from. I was shocked because I didn’t know he knew how to text because he said he didn’t know how to turn on a computer,” Manley said, referring to McNeil. 

Manley said he considered it an honor, and he was elected in his own right in 2014.

He called McNeil “just a poor kid from Anaconda that for all his success and accomplishments never really changed.” 

Manley noted that McNeil was proud of his participation in the state Constitutional Convention of 1972, which resulted in a new Constitution that replaced one adopted in 1889 when Montana became a state. 

“He used to say he was the most conservative member of the convention,” Manley said, adding that McNeil worked on it with liberal Butte attorney Mick McKeon, who also grew up in Anaconda.

McNeil was well-known for his efficiency. 

“Most civil attorneys liked him because he got orders out quickly,” Manley said, adding that McNeil would issue them within 10 days as a matter of course. Less than 30 days is the standard for most judges, but some complicated civil cases take 2-3 months, Manley said.  

‘Small town lawyer’

Attorney John A. Mercer, who started working at the Turnage-McNeil law firm in 1979, called McNeil “a small town lawyer. He solved disputes between people without going to court. He had a booming voice and an incredible physical presence. His clients had so much respect for him. He saved many marriages,” Mercer said. “He dealt with just about anything that came in the door.”

McNeil was as much a good counselor as he was a lawyer, Mercer said, adding that McNeil was highly respected for his intellect and decisiveness.

“He set a certain standard that’s extremely efficient. People were jealous of the way things were done in Judge McNeil’s court,” Mercer said. 

Mercer ran for the state House in 1984 and appeared on the ballot with his business partners Jean Turnage and McNeil. Turnage, who had served in the state Legislature for 22 years, was running for chief justice of the state Supreme Court, while McNeil was running to be judge of the newly-created 20th Judicial District. All three won, and Mercer credits his victory on his association with Turnage and McNeil. 

Mercer also credits McNeil for some of Turnage’s success because McNeil covered their law office when Turnage was attending legislative sessions from 1966-84. 

McNeil was always the life of the office, Mercer said, adding that “he always treated me like I was a member of his family.” 

‘Bigger than life’    

Judge Kim Christopher’s earliest memories of McNeil were as a child. 

Her parents, Dick and Keenie Christopher, had the Harbor Pharmacy on Main Street, which was separated from the Turnage and McNeil law firm by an alley. 

“He was bigger than life and had a voice louder than anything I’d ever heard   and it would fill the alley,” she said. “It was almost scary because I was little and he was big.” 

Christopher’s mother and McNeil’s wife, JoAnn, were sorority sisters in college and Christopher went to school with the McNeils’ children, Chuck and Jolie. 

She served as Lake County attorney from 1995-2000 and was elected as the 20th Judicial District’s second judge in 2000. She called McNeil her mentor on the court. 

“He felt that justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “He was a good judge to stand in front of, and you knew that he knew what the law was and he would follow it. He knew how to maintain decorum in the courtroom,” she said. “His mere presence was enough.” 

McNeil was “most proud of his partnership with Jean Turnage,” she said, referring to the late Supreme Court justice, St. Ignatius native and tribal member, who died Sept. 27, 2015 at age 89. 

Christopher said McNeil hand wrote all of his decisions, and Manley said many of them were “no frills.” 

McNeil coached baseball and was an avid wildlife photographer, skier and hunter. A number of his wildlife photos adorn the interior walls between the courtroom that bears his name and the judges’ offices. 

Another Anaconda native, Ed McLean, called McNeil a dear friend. 

“He was very plain spoken and got right to the quick of things,” McLean said, adding McNeil had a deep love for the law, but the most important thing in his life was his family. 

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