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So long, Frank

Former justice’s passing is Montana’s loss


While the nation's attention is focused on the confirmation hearings of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, Montanans find themselves mourning a former member of Montana's Supreme Court with the sudden and unexpected death of Frank Morrison, Jr. this week. Perhaps what stands out most is the difference between the wishy-washy, evasive, and fence-straddling Alito and Morrison's straight-talking defense of "the little guy" and the environment against the corporate giants whose heavy hands have so horribly scarred our state.

It was obvious to those who worked on Morrison's 1988 gubernatorial campaign that Frank, having been a Supreme Court justice for nearly a decade, felt the need to get out of the staid judicial robes and take the fight directly to the policy arena. As the son of a former Nebraska governor, Frank was no stranger to the power of the governor's office and the influence it could bring to bear on important issues.

I vividly recall the day Frank and I toured the Clark Fork River Superfund site. As the former chair of the citizen's committee that interacted with the EPA on matters related to the site, I acted as Frank's guide as we made our way from Butte to Milltown.

We stopped at Rocker and walked down to Silver Bow Creek where it cuts through perhaps 12 or 15 feet of toxic sediments that had been deposited in multi-colored layers during the century of unregulated mining and smelting activities. Here the water trickling from the poisonous soils was a variety of colors-orange, red and brown, depending on which level of toxins it drained.

When we hit Deer Lodge, Frank walked through the blue-green crusted slickens where the toxic sediments had killed everything from grass to willows. The same deadly slickens are found throughout the 100 river miles to Milltown and continue to plague restoration efforts nearly 20 years later.

When we returned from the tour, Frank immediately scheduled a news conference, distributed copies of videos showing the toxic damage, and minced no words about who was responsible or what he thought should be done. Given his outstanding record of achievement as a widely-respected trial lawyer, Morrison pledged that, should he be elected governor, the full resources of the state of Montana would be dedicated to going after ARCO to achieve both just compensation for the environmental and human health damages incurred as well as full payment for any and all reclamation activities necessary to restore the drainage and surrounding lands.

Had he been successful in his bid for the governor's office, few doubted that Frank Morrison would have been on ARCO like a bulldog. But Frank wasn't a Demo party insider, and many say that contributed greatly to his loss in the primary. As it turned out, perhaps the Dems should have reconsidered to whom they tossed their support, since the 1988 elections saw the loss of the governor's office to the Republican Stan Stephens and John Melcher's U.S. Senate seat to Conrad Burns-the beginning of the Republican ascension to power that they would hold for nearly 16 years.

Morrison, however, didn't waste a lot of time crying over his political losses. Instead, he turned to what he did best, cranked up his law office in Whitefish, and got back to work. Most recently, Morrison was one of the lead attorneys representing those who had been fleeced by the sale and subsequent collapse of the Montana Power Company. For those who lost their lifetime investments when MPC's stocks were reduced to a fraction of their former value, Frank Morrison was their knight in shining armor.

In one of our last discussions before his untimely death, Frank seemed certain his trail would lead inexorably to the Wall Steet investment firm that had advised MPC to sell off its utility assets while the firm itself was acquiring utility holdings. Ever the trial lawyer, Frank was convinced he would somehow make the "deep pockets" on Wall Street pay for the horrific damage inflicted on Montanans-and Butte, especially-over the ruinous affair.

Unfortunately, if Frank's dream of justice comes to pass he won't be around to see it. But others carry on the work-not the least of whom is his childhood sweetheart and wife, Sharon Morrison. A tiger in her own right, Sharon was the attorney who fought the out-of-state energy interests planning a massive coal slurry pipeline from Montana to Texas in the late 1970s.

As Hal Harper, former legislator and now chief policy adviser to the governor tells it, Sharon Morrison took on the corporate giants and "ripped them up" when he sponsored the bill that required legislative approval before any significant amount of water could be shipped from Montana. Thanks to those successful and visionary actions so many long years ago, the Yellowstone, Powder, and Tongue rivers are still running in Montana-and not being used as the transport medium for fine-ground coal in a slurry pipeline.

As in so many things, the real good that people do far outlives them-and it would take a much longer column to list the great good that will outlive Frank Morrison, Jr. In a society in which corporate power combined with corrupt government collusion has risen almost to the imperial level, we need all the Frank Morrisons we can get. We need them to fight for the little guy, to cry "foul" when the big foot comes down hard, and to bring justice to the afflicted at the end of the day.

But now Frank Morrison is gone. Perhaps someday we'll meet again around the bend in the river and his smiling face will shine in the light once more. In the words of Woody Guthrie, "so long, it's been good to know ya," Frank-and thanks for all you did for us.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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