Montana State University graduate Judge Sidney Thomas of the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Montana State University during the university’s spring commencement
, MSU officials announced today.
MSU's spring commencement ceremonies are scheduled for Friday, May 13, at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
With an exemplary life devoted to the knowledge and practice of the law, Judge Sid Thomas has brought great distinction to Montana State University and the state of Montana,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “He has served the people of Montana, the constituents in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the nation with absolute dedication and diligence. It is a most deserved recognition to bestow Judge Thomas the highest honor in the Montana University System.”
Born and raised in Bozeman and the son of a longtime MSU faculty member, Thomas is a product of the Montana public education system. He graduated from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1975. While at MSU he served two terms as the Montana University System student regent with appointments in 1974 and 1976. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Law in 1978. He entered private practice in Billings and became a senior partner in his firm, specializing in commercial litigation as well as government, bankruptcy and media law.
Thomas was just 42 in 1996 when President Bill Clinton appointed him to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, in his letter of nomination, said that Thomas’ appointment at such a young age reflected his intellectual capacity and his respect by his peers. Thomas served as chief judge of the circuit, which is the nation’s largest federal appellate court included the nine most western states, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, from Dec. 1, 2014, to Dec. 1, 2021. Thomas opted to keep his chambers in Billings, commuting to the court in San Francisco when necessary
When he stepped down from the administrative position after a seven-year-term and passed the gavel in December, a release from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said as chief judge, Thomas greatly expanded the use of technology to improve operations and make the judicial process more accessible to the public.
“He oversaw the improvement of overall court processing times, the onboarding of numerous new judges, the deaths of longtime colleagues, several government shutdowns and budget related crises, numerous natural disasters, the 9th Circuit’s response to COVID-19 and the effort to maintain the continuity of justice as the courts adapted to virtual proceedings,” the release said.
Thomas will continue to serve the court as an active judge. By law, selection of the chief judge of a federal circuit or district court is based on seniority and age. The most senior active judge under the age of 65 is eligible to serve as chief judge for a term of up to seven years.
Anthony Johnstone, the Helen and David Mason Professor of Law and an affiliated professor of public administration at the University of Montana's Blewett School of Law, said that Thomas has earned a reputation as a “non-ideological consensus builder concerned, above all, with getting the law right.
“Several scholarly studies rank Judge Thomas among the most influential, productive and independent judges on the bench,” said Johnstone in his nomination letter. Johnstone, who is the grandson of former MSU President William Johnstone, clerked for Thomas. “For nearly two decades, long before the chief judge’s gavel passed to him, Judge Thomas also helped lead the 9th Circuit to better serve the public through his behind-the-scenes technological and administrative advancements.”
Thomas was on the short list of candidates that President Barack Obama considered to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens in 2010, and the only one considered who had not graduated from an Ivy League college.
During that process, The New York Times wrote a story about Thomas that noted that his work habits were legendary among his clerks, as was his attention to detail. The article also mentioned that Thomas’ writing style in opinions “is literary, even puckish.”
The Times quoted Nickolas C. Murnion, judge of Montana’s 16th District Court, who became friends with Judge Thomas in the 1970s at MSU and who was a law school roommate. Murnion said he and his law school friends used to riff on the concept of “the reasonable man,” a standard often used in the law to determine negligence. Murnion said they used to joke about where that reasonable man might be found.
“‘I’ll tell you,’” Murnion is quoted, “‘I think Sid might be it.’”
Veteran Montana political reporter Charles “Chuck” Johnson will also receive an honorary degree in letters at the May 13 commencement ceremonies.