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Mike Wheat
Mike Wheat

Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday appointed Mike Wheat, a former state senator and longtime Bozeman attorney, to a soon-to-be vacant justice’s seat on the Montana Supreme Court.

Wheat will succeed Justice John Warner, who is retiring Dec. 31 because of health reasons, on the seven-member court.

He was one of 11 attorneys to apply for the job and one of the three finalists recommended by the state Judicial Nomination Commission. The other finalists were Carlo Canty of Helena and John Warren of Dillon.

“It is an honor to appoint Mike Wheat as Supreme Court justice,” Schweitzer said. “He is an outstanding attorney and will represent Montana fairly on the bench. All the candidates forwarded to me for this position were excellent and qualified. I felt Wheat was the most ready to serve as justice and run for election this coming year.”

Wheat told Lee Newspapers he is “really excited” about the appointment.

“I’ve been a lawyer since 1978, and I view serving on the Montana Supreme Court as a crowning glory to a legal career,” he said.

Wheat said both Canty and Warren are “very, very qualified individuals who could have done the job.”

“I’m just the lucky one the governor appointed and had confidence in,” he said.

Wheat had already spoken with Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath on Wednesday to request a meeting with the justices “to help me get my feet on the ground” in the new job.

The appointment is for one year, effective Jan. 1. Wheat intends to run for statewide election in 2010 to complete Warner’s term, which ends in December 2014.

Wheat noted that he has already run for statewide office once — he was runner-up to Steve Bullock in the three-way Democratic primary race for attorney general in 2008 — and has helped on several other statewide campaigns.

“That part is not going to be as difficult as if I had never run statewide before,” he said.

Wheat, 62, was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1947, and moved to Montana in 1948. He was a decorated U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. He later received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Montana.

After completing law school, Wheat worked as a deputy county attorney in Butte-Silver Bow County for three years.

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Then Wheat and a law school classmate, Michael Cok, formed the Cok Wheat law firm in Bozeman. He practiced there from 1981-2008 before retiring as a partner.

His practice was almost exclusively plaintiff-oriented and appellate litigation, with an emphasis on personal injury, product liability and insurance-related claims, Wheat said in his application. More recently, his practice has involved mediation and arbitration.

Wheat was elected to the Montana Senate in 2002 and was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005.

As a legislator, Wheat said he sponsored a major bill that reorganized the Montana Board of Veterans Affairs in 2003.

He said he was significantly involved in two major laws that passed in 2005. One created the state Office of Public Defender and the other established a new timeline and fee system for fully adjudicating water rights in Montana.

Charles S. Johnson: 447-4066 or chuck.johnson@lee.net

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