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Outgoing US Judge Charles Lovell reflects on his love for the law
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Outgoing US Judge Charles Lovell reflects on his love for the law

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles C. Lovell

After 36 years of service in the District of Montana, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles C. Lovell is leaving his Helena bench.  

The relationships we forge, the lives we touch, and the words we use make up the legacies we leave behind.

The legacy of U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell is filled to the brim with loving relationships, appreciative proteges and reams of words that shaped the legal landscape of Montana for generations to come.

"My family wants me to write a book," Lovell said while seated behind the broad oak and leather desk that takes up the bulk of the private Helena office space his children rented to give him a place to write. "They think I have a book in me. I'm not so sure."

Lovell's words, his professional legacy, are forever preserved in the form of copious decisions and opinions on some of the most important legal cases in the history of the state, including landmark rulings on the Brady Bill, the Freemen trial and Yellowstone bison. As chief counsel for the Office of the Montana Attorney General, Lovell successfully argued his case for the new Montana Constitution before the state Supreme Court.

Before his time on the bench, Lovell graduated from the University of Montana in 1952 and entered active duty for the U.S. Air Force as a weapons controller. He transferred to active reserve in 1954 and reached the rank of captain before he was released to honorary retired reserve in 1967.

Lovell began his legal career in Great Falls following his graduation from the University of Montana School of Law in 1959. He was in private practice from 1959 to 1985.

His daughter, Lisa Lovell, also a lawyer, said his most important case was the Montana Constitution.

The words Charles Lovell chooses to describe that case illustrate the genuine care and pride he takes in his work.

"We nursed that child along, made it flourish," Lovell said of the 1972 Constitution.

With such care for his work, it is easy to understand how even the smallest of cases carried the weight of an entire legal system in Lovell's eyes.

"I have always felt the most important case in my career is the one I'm working on day to day," he said.

Lovell was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and a bronze statue of the Republican icon is one of the few adornments on his office desk. 

Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker began clerking for Lovell out of law school shortly after his appointment, and she said the experience would shape the rest of her long career.

"It was so palpable how much he loved the work he was doing," Baker said during a phone interview Friday. "Watching him work in the court system, the high regard he held for the profession and the corresponding commitment he made inspired me to keep doing what I was doing but also taught me how to do it well."

Lovell gave his utmost attention to the naturalization ceremonies, she said. 

"He was so sincere in welcoming new citizens to our country," she added.

He was proud to share what he still considers the finest country with his new neighbors.

"I think we're so fortunate to have been born and raised here with the finest legal system in the world," Lovell said. "That's why so many people are trying to join us. I'm proud of it."

Lovell has passed along his admiration for the law to his children.

He and his first wife had four children, three of whom are now practicing lawyers. Lovell was proud to point out that one of his granddaughters also practices law.

"We can almost have a bar meeting at a family dinner," he said. "We all love the law. I hope we love each other as much."

Lovell spoke about his granddaughter at length during the Tuesday interview in his new south Helena office, beaming with pride.

Lovell stepped down as an active judge at age 70 on June 14, 2000, but continued to handle about half of his usual caseload in the Helena Division as a senior judge, The Associated Press reported. He cited health reasons for his decision in a letter to President Bill Clinton at the time, the story says.

He recently finished off a 36-year tenure as a U.S. District Court Judge.

But Lovell said he has not retired. Instead, the 91-year-old has assumed inactive senior status, which means he will keep his title but relinquish his pending caseload and no longer maintain a chambers in the Helena Division.

The move leaves the door open for his return should the need arise.

"I don't intend to practice law again, but I might," he said. 


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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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